Saturday, December 4, 2021

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The US and Russia have paid considerable attention to the ‘loyal wingman’  concept that pairs up cheaper, more expendable drones with crewed aircraft to aid in missions and as well as serve as decoys sometimes.

Now, China seems to have made progress on this concept as well, with what appears to be a tailless aircraft design to accompany its indigenous fighter jet.

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The American Valkyrie Drone

The XQ-58 Valkyrie is an experimental stealthy unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) that is designed and built by Kratos for the US Air Force (USAF). It is a part of the Low-Cost Attritable Strike Demonstrator program.

This program falls under the USAF Research Laboratory’s Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) project. The reason for the establishment of the LCAAT portfolio was to break the increasing cost trajectory of tactically relevant aircraft while simultaneously providing a loyal wingman aircraft alongside a crewed fighter jet in combat.

Valkyrie boasts of having long-range, high-speed, and maneuverability, in addition to having the capability to deliver a mix of lethal weapons from its internal bomb bay and wing stations. Moreover, the UCAV’s runway independence and extreme range deliver optimum operational flexibility and utility to the warfighter.

XQ-58A Valkyrie
The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator on its inaugural flight, 5 March 2019 at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona. (Wikipedia)

The currently available data reveals that the drone is about 8.5 meters long and can reach speeds of over 1,000 kilometers per hour. It is expected to come equipped with precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) or even a Small Diameter Bomb.

According to USAF reports, the stealthy-looking Valkyrie has the ability to be configured for both surveillance and attack missions.

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The drone is reportedly designed to fly missions while being operated by pilots in an F-22 or F-35 fighter cockpit. The purpose is to effectively grant human decision-makers control of the Valkyrie to operate in a command and control capability to direct lethal operations.

US’ historic rival, Russia, is also developing its own loyal wingman design although this one seems to be much larger.

The Russian Hunter-B

The EurAsian Times had previously reported on details of the Russian Okhotnik drone that were revealed in a TV program. The Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik-B is also known as the Hunter-B. It is being flaunted as a highly advanced sixth-generation UCAV.

This drone, a brainchild of the Sukhoi Design Bureau and Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG, has a potent stealth profile and is being developed for the Russian Air Force. It is expected to be delivered to the service by 2024.

This drone has a maximum take-off weight of 20 tonnes, with a wingspan of 20 meters. With a reported length of 14 meters, this companion of the Sukhoi Su-57 fifth-generation fighter jet is substantially bigger than its Western counterparts such as Dassault nEUROn and Northrop Grumman X-47B.

Russia S-70 Okhotnik
The Hunter-B UCAV.

Hunter-B’s upper body is covered in various intakes and exhausts, as well as antennas. It is equipped with a forward-facing camera system under the central part of the forward fuselage.

The elaborate view of the aircraft provided by TV Zvezda showed the UCAV’s exposed engine exhaust. There are indications that the drone is not expected to be overly fast or maneuverable, relying rather on its stealthy characteristics to successfully accomplish its missions.

It will probably be networked to fly in some type of formation semi-autonomously, as a “loyal wingman”. With an impressive operational range, and its capability of flying armed with over two tons of potent ground-attack and air-to-air weapons, the drone can make deep precision strikes behind enemy lines.

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The Su-70 isn’t the only loyal wingman design that came into public notice recently. Satellite images of the Chinese Chengdu Corporation that The War Zone recently obtained showed a very unusual airframe.

China’s Tailless Drone

The perplexing airframe appears to have first appeared in early-to-mid 2021, having been positioned next to a standalone hangar on the northeastern side of the airfield. The image shows a relatively thin nose section on a large, modified diamond-like delta planform.

The design is reminiscent of the unmanned X-44 Manta concept that never came to be. The airframe’s wingspan appears to be similar in size to that of a J-20. However, the large size of the airframe isn’t the most captivating aspect of it. What is, in fact, most intriguing is the tailless design.

A tailless design offers multiple advantages. For starters, it offers a major improvement in broadband low-observability against a number of radar types. A tailless aircraft faces reduced drag for sustained high-speed dashes and cruise, thus bettering its overall efficiency.

The X-44 MANTA
China’s new tailless drone is similar to the US’ X-44 MANTA.

Besides, this is a structurally simplified design that reduces the overall weight of the aircraft. This design also better optimizes a stealthy aircraft for a much lesser radar signature from the side and rear perspectives, beyond the head-on aspect.

The huge modified delta wing makes room for carrying lots of fuel while also leaving enough space for a large internal weapons bay.

However, there are downsides to a tailless vehicle. The removal of vertical tails makes it hard to achieve stability. The design also demands advanced fly-by-wire digital flight control technology and the software underpinning it to even be functional.

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There is also the challenge of reduced maneuverability, which can only be offset to some degree through thrust vectoring. However, the fact that such an air vehicle would be more focused on range, payload, speed, and low observability, rather than super maneuverability, remains.

China has previously revealed a drone concept of Feihong FH-97, similar in mission and appearance to the American Valkyrie. This sheds light upon the country’s interest in further exploring the loyal wingman concept.

In line with that, there seems to be a high chance that an unmanned configuration like this could be put to use as the J-20’s potential loyal wingman, providing it with a highly logical high-performance UCAV.

Feihong FH-97
A model of the Feihong FH-97 was put on display at the 2021 Zhuhai airshow in China. (via Twitter)

The US might be joining the race to build a tailless UCAV that the airframe in question depicts as well. Some have argued that such a platform suits the US’ potential threat realities and operational hurdles much better when viewed in comparison with short-ranged fighters.

The latter are usually optimized to hide from X-band fire-control radars and end up trading performance capabilities which are extremely crucial for less relevant maneuverability.

The US Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) system, and perhaps the Navy’s similar initiative might fulfill the demand for the capabilities that the tailless design offers.

Despite these conjectures, what the airframe’s actual purpose is, and what kind of design the US might come up with in this context, remains to be seen.

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