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USAF begins testing loyal wingman

The US Air Force has received its first two loyal wingmen Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie stealth combat drones.  The Valkyrie is to act as a loyal wingman, a high-performance drone that would accompany manned fighter jets in battle and fight alongside them.

The aircraft were transferred to the 40th Flight Test Squadron stationed at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. The  transfer to the USAF comes just days after Kratos announced the successful maiden flight of the XQ-58A Block 2, the first production example of the jet, which took off in early November 2022.  

Originally designated as the XQ-222, the Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie is an experimental stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) designed and built by Kratos Defense & Security Solutions for the United States Air Force for the Low Cost Attritable Strike Demostrator (LCASD) program, and under the USAF Research Laboratory’s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) project portfolio.

The next step in testing the aircraft’s capabilities. It will also help the USAF to develop the necessary infrastructure for operating the unmanned aircraft, said a USAF press release.  In its press release, the USAF did not explain if the two Valkyries received by the service are production or pre-production examples.  

The model has been undergoing intensive testing ever since its maiden flight in 2019. It is capable of semi-autonomous operations and conducting missions while being guided either from the ground or from a manned aircraft. The XQ-58 is able to follow basic commands, autonomously determining the best flightpath and throttle settings it requires.  

According to the USAF, it expects the drone to be able to perform as a real crewed-uncrewed teaming by autumn 2023. If successful, in less than a year the Valkyries could be performing combat missions. The role of the LCAAT is to escort the F-22 and F-35 fighters during combat missions and to deploy weapons or surveillance systems.

Conceived in the early 2010s, the idea of loyal wingmen is at the heart of the next step in combat aviation. Numerous countries are developing their own loyal wingmen or adapting existing combat drones to fit the mission.  

The concept is central to the upcoming sixth generation of fighter aircraft expected to enter service. In addition to advanced stealth and networking characteristics, these programs envision manned fighters as just one component of a vast system that includes multiple high-performance unmanned aircraft flying together in formations.   

The XQ-58 Valkyrie is a competitor in the ‘Skyborg program’, a USAF initiative to develop both hardware and software for a loyal wingman. Multiple parallel programs with the same goal are also being run by the US military and aerospace manufacturers. 

Though the XQ-58 is capable of conventional take-offs and landings, it can also be launched from “nondescript launch modules”, such as support ships, shipping containers, and semi-trailer trucks. Kratos says it could produce between 250-500 Valkyries per year for the USAF.




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