The Marine Corps used a new Pentagon program designed to quickly prototype systems for conflict in the Pacific to buy two unmanned aerial vehicles last month for $15.5 million, a service official told USNI News on Tuesday.
The contract to Kratos for the pair of XQ-58A Valkyrie “loyal wingman” drones was bought through the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division under the Department of Defense Rapid Defense Experimentation Reserve (RDER) and wasn’t part of the Navy’s ongoing Next Generation Air Dominance program, Marine Maj. Jay Hernandez told USNI News.
“This purchase is part of ongoing USMC efforts to look at future autonomous collaborative platforms and is not tied to the Next Generation Air Dominance Program, or any other Air Force or Navy programs. The base contract was awarded primarily for the baseline aircraft—a decision for future modifications and operations has not been made as these aircraft are for experimental use,” he said.
“This project officially started with the award of the base contract and will develop into experimentation in [Fiscal Year] 24.”
The Pentagon awarded the contract on Dec. 30, and the initial announcement did not say the purchase was for the Marine RDER effort. Naval Air Systems Command did not respond to a request for comment when asked by USNI News in December. Breaking Defense first reported the contract’s connection to the Marines on Monday.
The UASs should have “sensor and weapon system payloads to accomplish the penetrating affordable autonomous collaborative killer” mission, according to the DoD announcement.
The two drones are part of the RDER experimentation program that allows services to military items to quickly test concepts with systems already in use in other arenas with an emphasis on the needs of commands in the Indo-Pacific.
“RDER is really a whole of [Defense Department] effort that’s focused on the exploitation of advanced technologies in order to provide capabilities that address some of our most pressing or difficult military challenges,” Air Force Col. Corey Beaverson said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Future Force 2022 conference in September, reported National Defense Magazine.
“The focus is going to be on long-range kill chains, long-range fires, command and control capabilities: how do we operate in a contested logistics environment? How do we defend forward fixed bases?”
The Valkyries were developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory to be a high-speed, low-cost aircraft developed for the AFRL’s Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) project.
“The LCAAT portfolio was established to break the escalating cost trajectory of tactically relevant aircraft and provide an unmanned escort or wingman aircraft alongside a crewed fighter aircraft in combat,” according to Kratos.
The XQ-58As can operate without a runway and carry a variety of payloads from weapons to communication relays at a range of about 3,000 nautical miles with a cruising speed of about 550 miles per hour, according to a 2018 datasheet from Kratos. In addition to launching from land, Kratos developed a version of the UAV that can be moved in a standard shipping container.
Both the Air Force and Marines are developing expeditionary aviation concepts for their respective services. The Air Force is refining its Agile Combat Employment – a concept that disperses combat air power across several expeditionary bases. The Marines have also experimented with the Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) that will be key to how it says it will fight in the island campaigns in modern conflict. The Marines have tested assembling remote airfields to support F-35s in austere locations.
The Marines are also experimenting with other unmanned vehicles like the MQ-9 Reaper UAV, unmanned ground vehicles and is developing its own large, unmanned surface vessel program.