The US Air Force has received its first two Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie stealth combat drones, the first loyal wingmen to reach the service.
The aircraft were transferred to the 40th Flight Test Squadron stationed at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
The transfer indicates the next step in testing the aircraft’s capabilities. It will also help the USAF to develop the necessary infrastructure for operating the unmanned jet, the USAF noted in a press release.
Towards loyal wingmen
The model has been undergoing intensive testing ever since its maiden flight in 2019. It is capable of semi-autonomous operations, conducting missions while being guided either from the ground or from a manned aircraft.
So far, the XQ-58 has demonstrated being able to follow basic commands, autonomously determining the best flightpath and throttle settings.
The main goal is to use the Valkyrie as a loyal wingman: a high-performance drone that would accompany manned fighter jets in battle and fight alongside them.
According to the USAF, the service expects to be able to perform real crewed-uncrewed teaming by fall 2023, meaning that in less than a year the Valkyries could be performing combat missions alongside manned fighter jets.
The aircrafts’ 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.
In its press release, the USAF did not explain if the two Valkyries received by the service are production or pre-production examples.
New golden grail of aviation
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.
Furthermore, the concept is central to the upcoming sixth generation of fighter jets. In addition to advanced stealth and networking characteristics, programs such as NGAD, FCAS and Tempest envision a manned jet as just one component of a vast system that includes multiple high-performance unmanned aircraft.
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.