The Air Force’s somewhat stealthy looking XQ-58A Valkyrie drone launched a mini-drone from its internal weapons bay, marking a breakthrough in the now highly-prioritized and growing arena of unmanned-unmanned teaming. The goal with such teaming is to have coordinated, autonomous drones launching and operating mini-drone companion platforms while working together with a human operator. The successful Air Force Research Lab test, which took place March 26 at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., was actually the sixth flight test for the Valkyrie and the “first release” from its internal weapons bay, an Air Force report states.
The Valkyrie launched a Kratos-built ALTIUS-600 mini drone in what the Air Force describes as the first ever opening of its internal weapons bay. The Valkyrie continued to complete additional “test points” and fly “higher and faster” than during previous flights, the service report says. The ability to launch a drone from a drone is quite significant, as manned fighter jets such as F-16s have in previous instances been able to launch small Perdix drones from a flare dispenser. However engineering air-launchable, yet also recoverable drones, is an important advance.
This demonstrates a number of interesting and significant tactical possibilities, as a drone launched drone could operate as a mini-scout surveillance node over extremely hostile or high threat areas amid heavy enemy fire. It would not only have a better chance at not being shot down by virtue of its small size, but a small drone of this kind could even function itself as a weapon. The Valkyrie is configured to drop bombs and fire weapons as part of a manned-unmanned teaming operational scope.
Available data says the twenty-eight-ft long Valkyrie can reach speeds as fast as 650 mph and attack with JDAMs (precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions) or even a Small Diameter Bomb.
This is significant in a number of respects as it adds an entirely new layer of operations to manned-unmanned teaming. The Valkyrie itself is already being developed as a “loyal wingman” type of platform wherein it will soon be operated from the cockpit of a manned fighter such as an F-22 or F-35 stealth jet fighter to conduct forward surveillance, expand mission scope or even fire and drop weapons over hostile territory. Now, with this most recent Valkyrie test, there is the potential arrival of a manned-unmanned-unmanned kind of multi-layered teaming where each operational tier of sorts could venture farther into enemy territory, all while sending back real-time images to network targeting data.
Air Force senior leaders have consistently talked about the unprecedented value-added proposition introduced by emerging platforms such as the Valkyrie, as they are specifically designed to progressively advance the operational curve.
“The intent is to continue to experiment to support missions we can’t do today, utilizing a system like this which is cutting edge. It is a whole new class of vehicle to exercise expanded mission capabilities,” Mr. Chris Ristich, Transformational Capabilities Office Director and Director of Strategic Development Planning & Experimentation, told reporters last year at an Air Force Research Laboratory media event during the 2020 Air Force Association’s annual Conference.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.