XQ-58 Valkyrie Can Now Take Off From Runways Thanks To New Launch Trolly System

The stealthy XQ-58 Valkyrie drone now has a new way of getting into the air via a traditional runway with the help of a wheeled trolley. The new launch method allows the XQ-58 to take off with more fuel and/or larger payloads while still retaining its valuable ability to be readily employed in a completely runway-independent mode if desired.

The XQ-58’s manufacturer Kratos announced the successful demonstration of the Kratos Trolley Launch System (KTLS) yesterday. The company’s press release did not say when the test happened, but it took place at the Grand Sky drone-focused aviation business park collocated with Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

An XQ-58 Valkyrie drone with the Kratos Trolley Launch System fitted. Kratos

“For KTLS take off, which is fully autonomous, the aircraft engine throttles up just like a conventional jet take off, and the combined system, Valkyrie and KTLS, accelerates down the runway,” according to Kratos’ release. “Ultimately, at lift-off speed, the aircraft flies up and away (separates) from the KTLS, which then deploys drogue chutes and brakes to a stop on the runway while the aircraft proceeds to its flight mission.”

KTLS could also be used to launch XQ-58s from straight roads or other suitable surfaces in addition to traditional runways.

A KTLS launch can be seen in the video below.

Since its first flight in 2019, the XQ-58’s primary takeoff method has been via a static ground-based launcher with the help of expendable rocket boosters. The Valkyrie, which has no landing gear, gets back down at the end of a sortie using a parachute recovery system. Inflatable air bags help cushion the drone when it hits the ground. Since the new trolley detaches during takeoff, the Valkyrie still lands via parachute when using that new launch method.

“A primary benefit of both RATO [rocket-assisted take off] and KTLS launch is that the aircraft payload and fuel load can be maximized and is not reduced by the weight, nor the storage volume required for conventional retractable gear,” Kratos’ press release notes. “Significantly, the flyaway aircraft system cost is also not impacted by the cost of take-off / landing gear. For deployment of affordable mass, keeping cost out of the airborne systems is paramount.”

An XQ-58 recovery with parachutes and airbags deployed. USAF

So, the use of a conventional runway means the XQ-58 can get aloft with a higher gross weight, which can equate to more weapons, sensors, and fuel. Kratos has told The War Zone that the increase “is in the 10s of % for both fuel and payload capacity” and “enables quite an advantage for amount of payload and range / endurance of the system.” The use of the aircraft is also not limited to rocket boosters on-hand at any given location.

The XQ-58 has a stated maximum launch weight of 6,000 pounds, as well as the ability to fly up to 45,000 feet and out to a range of 3,000 miles, according to Kratos’ website. The Valkyrie can carry weapons or other stores in its internal centerline bay and on hard points under its wings. It also has a highly modular internal design that allows it to be otherwise readily configured and reconfigured for various missions, including electronic warfare and communications relay.

An Air Force XQ-58A releases a smaller ALTIUS 600 drone from its internal payload bay during a test in 2021. USAF

The company has said in recent years that it is working to expand the performance envelope for the XQ-58 family, which currently includes at least five distinct variants. This includes the Block 2 version, which has been described in the past as heavier than the baseline type, and there could be other larger types that would benefit greatly from the KTLS.

The exact configuration also impacts cost. The current unit prices for the XQ-58s are between $5 and $6 million, depending on the version and other factors. Kratos has said in the past that its goal is to drive that down to around $2 million, which would make the drones comparable in price, if not cheaper than many expendable missiles. You can read more in detail about what is known about the current XQ-58 line here.

Kratos states that there is also a third launch option for the XQ-58 in the works, but has so far declined to provide more details. Air launch or carrier catapult launch are two speculative possibilities. The company has also shown a containerized launcher concept in the past, but it still gets the drone into the air via the RATO method.

It is worth noting that trolley launch systems for aircraft are not new. Nazi Germany’s rocket-powered Me-163 interceptor and its initial prototypes of the jet-engined Arado Ar 234 bomber both used trolley-like systems in lieu of traditional landing gear.

For the XQ-58, as noted, the KTLS expands the options for employing the drone without sacrificing the benefits of its core runway-independent design. In an operational context, Valkyries could well be launched using either method depending on mission requirements and available basing infrastructure.

As The War Zone has highlighted in the past, the XQ-58’s lack of a need for a traditional runway, or even an impromptu air strip or road, could be extremely advantageous in future distributed operations. Valkyrie’s small operational footprint and readily deployable static launchers mean the drones could easily be positioned closer to actual operating areas, reducing the time it takes them to on station and/or increasing their loiter time. During a high-end conflict, such as one in the Pacific against China, established air bases will also just be top targets. In turn, being able to generate airpower from dispersed locations, including remote and austere sites with limited infrastructure, will be critical.

The XQ-58’s runway independence looks to be especially attractive for the U.S. Marine Corps, which has been completely restructuring itself around still-evolving distributed and expeditionary concepts of operations with a particular eye toward island-hopping scenarios in the Pacific. The service’s F-35Bs can operate from small strips that other fighters can’t, which would make them a good fit for cooperative operations with the Valkyrie. The Marines are experimenting with a small number of Valkyries now, including as electronic warfare platforms. Kratos has said in the past that the service is eyeing an MQ-58B variant more fully optimized for that role.

A US Marine Corps XQ-58A Valkyrie. USAF USAF

At the same time, giving the XQ-58 a readily available way to conduct missions with higher takeoff weights could also be very valuable. This could be particularly relevant in relation to the U.S. Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) drone program, which, by all indications, has been leaning toward higher-performance designs, at least initially. Kratos has been notably absent so far from the CCA effort, at least publicly, despite its clear interest in participating and the Air Force’s heavy use of the Valkyrie for other related research and development and test and evaluation work.

Maybe most importantly, this new form of launch could allow the XQ-58 to make the maximum use of its internal and external carriage capabilities, which could maximize utility for certain kinds of missions.

A rendering showing an XQ-58 with a pair of AIM-120 AMRAAMs under its wings. Kratos

“The successful demonstration of our Valkyrie and KTLS system is another recent example of Kratos ‘listening’ to the customer community and investing our own funds, enabling Kratos to rapidly develop, demonstrate and field relevant, low-cost systems,” Eric DeMarco, President and CEO of Kratos, said in a statement in the press release about the trolley launch method demonstration. “At Kratos, ‘better is the enemy of good enough, ready to go and flying today’, with our entire organization focused on delivering products, not some day hoped for, imagined images, power points or renditions, as we work with our government customer partners to rebuild the U.S. industrial base and support the warfighter.”

More remains to be learned about the exact capabilities the KTLS offers, as well as about the still mysterious third launch option for the XQ-58. Regardless, the newly unveiled launch trolley is yet another example of Kratos’ ongoing efforts to expand the performance and capabilities of its flagship Valkyrie design.

Contact the author: joe@twz.com

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Joseph Trevithick