Close on the heels of US Air For (USAF) F-15C/D fighters being withdrawn from Kadena Air Force Base (AFB) in Japan’s Okinawa, the experimental Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie has been suggested as the next credible alternative as a part of an effort to introduce drone swarms to overwhelm China.
The UCAV’s highly autonomous and runway-independent operation nullifies the threat posed by Chinese ballistic missiles that would first take out all US military and air bases in countries located in the western Pacific.
This has been anticipated in a Taiwan operation, where the US and Japan might intervene and challenge the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
By December 1, the USAF’s 18th Wing had withdrawn the first batch of F-15 Eagles from Kadena, as the C/D variant of the fighters ended nearly three decades of operations in the region.
Kadena is home to two squadrons of the USAF’s Boeing F-15Cs – the 44th Flight Squadron (Vampires) and the 67th Flight Squadron (Fighting Cocks).
Time to ‘Swarm’ Chinese With Valkyrie – US Expert
David Ochmanek, a defense and military affairs analyst at leading US think-tank RAND Corporation, said that in a war, the Chinese could devote hundreds of missiles to hit parked aircraft, runways, fuel storages, and other US and Japanese military targets.
The future, therefore, is Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technologies (LCAAT) like the Valkyrie.
“It can be launched from a trailer with small, disposable rocket motors. Its turbofan engine then sustains its flight. A derivative of this test article could have a payload of air-to-surface or air-to-air weapons over 1,000 pounds and a combat radius greater than 2,000 nautical miles.
On returning from its mission, it lands with a parachute. Mobile teams can then refuel, rearm, and relaunch the aircraft. By freeing airpower from its dependence on fixed infrastructure, this concept might largely nullify US adversaries’ massive investments in conventional ballistic and cruise missiles,” Ochmanek writes in an article for the RAND Corporation.
While capable of carrying missiles too, the Valkyrie has flown alongside the F-35 and F-22 as a part of the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) (or loyal wingman teaming) project, which the US Air Force plans to begin developing by 2023-24.
The CCAs are mainly meant for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) manned-unmanned teaming systems.
Attritable wingmen are perceived as key in high-threat, electronic warfare (EW) heavy environments, where features like autonomous operations/flight and modular design to have various packages for different roles are considered fundamental.
Further capabilities even other militaries want in their respective wingmen drone projects include intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR), attack, EW, communications relay, and possibly even functioning as loitering munitions.
Overwhelming adversary air defenses with cheap UCAVs/UAVs, complicating their targeting priorities and forcing them to expend their missile stockpile to make way for F-22s, F-35s are increasingly considered as the sole alternative.
Sharing data between themselves as a part of the swarm and other manned assets like fighters and Airborne Early Warning Aircraft (AEW) is the next vital feature for military planners.
Valkyrie Emerges As The Leading Option
The steady momentum of activities and tests with the Valkyrie over the last two months reflects how the USAF wants to quickly operationalize the platform and set the groundwork with test results for the CCA project.
On November 3, Kratos Defense and Security Solutions, the Valkyrie’s developer, said that a test with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at the Yuma Proving Grounds saw the XQ-58A “flying longer, higher and heavier…that was previously approved for.”
The press release, however, did not specify the figures.
The company used a new Block 2 XQ-58A from the lot of 12 new-production airframes for the test, making it the first time the particular drone had flown.
According to the company’s website, the XQ-58A has a maximum launch weight of 2,721 kgs (6,000 pounds), a service ceiling of up to 45,000 feet, and a maximum range of approximately 4,800 km (3,000 miles).
The flight was “conducted with and demonstrated encrypted communications with redundant radios/communications packages for range and operational missions remote from government ranges. For the final test point, the aircraft navigated to the landing site in a simulated loss of communications scenario,” the press release added.
“It landed within the target zone (autonomously) (towards the) end phase of the mission flight and recovery of the aircraft without RF (radio frequency) comms.”
This would help reduce the risk of enemy detection and tracking, if not penetrate through, at least evade air defense radars and sensors and return to base safely in high EW jamming environments.
Interestingly, Ochmanek was also part of a Pentagon-commissioned RAND Corporation war game where the US and Taiwanese forces were swarmed and completely sunk by thousands of Chinese UAVs, missiles, civilian militia boats, aircraft other military assets.