Here's what you should know about the Air Force's new robot wingman

Military Tech
XQ-58A Valkyrie First Flight

What's not to like about a robot wingman?

There's a lot of buzz about the first flight of an unmanned U.S. Air Force drone, designed to accompany manned combat aircraft into battle, that many believe will herald a new age of aerial warfare.


Looking at a photo of the XQ-58A Valkyrie, and it's easy to believe that something has changed. Today's drones, such as the MQ-9 Reaper, are goofy-looking airplanes with fat noses, old-fashioned propellers and a cruising speed not much faster than a Cessna prop job. But with its twin tail, curved fuselage and a jet engine that propels it to near-supersonic speed, the XQ-58A looks like a smaller F-35 stealth fighter.

This is not your daddy's drone.

The XQ-58A, designed by Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, performed its maiden flight on March 5 at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona. "Developed for runway independence, the aircraft behaved as expected and completed 76 minutes of flight time," according to an Air Force announcement. A total of five flights are planned for the Valkyrie, which is part of the Air Force Research Laboratory's Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT), which aims to develop cheap, expendable drones with sufficient performance to pair up—and be controlled—by combat jets.

While the Air Force refused to disclose specifics of the XQ-58A, the drone is billed as having long range and a "high subsonic" speed. It is designed to be "runway independent," which suggests it will be flown from rough airstrips and forward bases. Still more clues can be found in a $40.8 million Air Force contract awarded to Kratos in 2016 under the Low-Cost Attritable Strike Unmanned Aerial System Demonstration program. That contract called for a drone with a top speed of Mach 0.9 (691 miles per hour), a 1,500-mile combat radius carrying a 500-pound payload, the capability to carry two GBU-39 small diameter bombs, and costing $2 million apiece when in mass production (an F-35 costs around $100 million).

This sounds like a description not of the clumsy drones we have today, but a real Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, or UCAV. Put another way, this is a true robot warplane.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, a long-range, high subsonic unmanned air vehicle completed its inaugural flight March 5, 2019 at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona.(U.S. Air Force/Daryl Mayer)

Ironically, Australia may be ahead of the United States with its Loyal Wingman program, in which it is working with Boeing to develop a UCAV. At a recent Australian defense trade show, Boeing displayed images of what the Australian-designed Air Combat Teaming system will look like.

Like the XQ-58A, the Australian models resemble stealth fighters. Boeing will develop three different prototypes of the drones, which will be 38 feet long about two-thirds the length of an F-35—and have a range of 2,000 miles. These UCAVs—the first purely Australian-designed combat aircraft since World War II—are intended for Australia's air force as well as export to Australian allies—including the United States.

"Loyal Wingman is designed to act as a force multiplier for manned fighters like the F-35A, F/A-18F Super Hornet and E/A-18G Growler, and larger manned aircraft like the E-7A Wedgetail [airborne early warning aircraft] or KC-30A refueller," writes Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. "Its primary role is projecting power forward, while keeping manned platforms out of harm's way. It also seeks to protect 'combat enablers' like the Wedgetail from an adversary's long-range offensive counter-air capability."

"Offensive counter-air" refers to attacks on the sinews of an opponent's airpower, such as destroying airbases and command centers. If Loyal Wingman is designed to stop this, then these drones may end up being air-to-air dogfighters as well as bomb carriers.

Yet before we hail the Age of robo-warplanes, there are a few questions that need to be answered.

For example, the XQ-58A and the Loyal Wingman drones will be subsonic. While manned fighters don't continuously operate at fuel-guzzling supersonic speeds, they do hit the afterburner when they need to go in and get out fast. So what happens when a manned fighter must operate in conjunction with combat drones that have different speeds and maneuverability?

Both the XQ-58A and Loyal Wingman are supposed to be controlled by ground stations or manned aircraft, though Loyal Wingman is also supposed to be capable of operating autonomously (which would be a logical step for the XQ-58A). But this requires overcoming some obstacles, such as reliable communications and a control system that doesn't distract human pilots from flying their own aircraft.

All of which means that a UCAV will only be as good as its AI. Yet the Achilles heel of autonomous robots is that they have difficulty coping with unexpected situations, which is pretty much the definition of warfare.

Read more from The National Interest:

SEE ALSO: When American Pilots Go To War, DARPA Wants A Robot As Their Co-Pilot

WATCH NEXT: The Air Force Loves 'Stealth'

The U.S. military's withdrawal from northeast Syria is looking more like Dunkirk every day.

On Wednesday, the U.S. military had to call in an airstrike on one of its own ammunition dumps in northern Syria because the cargo trucks required to safely remove the ammo are needed elsewhere to support the withdrawal, Task & Purpose has learned.

Read More Show Less

Retired two-star Navy. Adm. Joe Sestak is the highest ranking — and perhaps, least known — veteran who is trying to clinch the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.

Sestak has decades of military experience, but he is not getting nearly as much media attention as fellow veterans Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). Another veteran, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) has dropped out of the race.

Read More Show Less

After preliminary fitness test scores leaked in September, many have voiced concerns about how women would fare in the new Army Combat Fitness Test.

The scores — which accounted for 11 of the 63 battalions that the ACFT was tested on last year — showed an overall failure rate of 84% for women, and a 70% pass rate for men.

But Army leaders aren't concerned about this in the slightest.

Read More Show Less
This photo taken on Oct. 7, 2018, shows a billboard that reads "The State Central Navy Testing Range" near residential buildings in the village of Nyonoksa, northwestern Russia. The Aug. 8, 2019, explosion of a rocket engine at the Russian navy's testing range just outside Nyonoksa led to a brief spike in radiation levels and raised new questions about prospective Russian weapons. (AP Photo/Sergei Yakovlev)

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Three U.S. diplomats have been removed from a train and briefly questioned by Russian authorities in the sensitive Arctic shipyard city of Severodvinsk, near the site of a mysterious explosion in August that killed five nuclear workers.

Russia's Interfax news agency reported on October 16 that the diplomats were taken off the train that runs between Severodvinsk and Nyonoksa around 6 p.m. on October 14.

Read More Show Less

The U.S. Coast Guard had ordered the owner of an illegal 45-foot charter boat, named "Sea You Twerk," to stop operating.

He didn't, the Coast Guard said.

Now, Dallas Lad, 38, will serve 30 days in federal prison, a judge ruled Friday. When he is released, Ladd of Miami Beach, who pleaded guilty, will not be able to own or go on a boat for three years.

Read More Show Less