The first XQ-58A Valkyrie drone, also known as Tail #1, that was tested by the Air Force will be placed in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force after a few test flights, as reported by Popular Science. The unmanned Valkyrie drones were designed to be autonomous escorts for more expensive fighter jets during the Air Force’s experiments.
However, its brief testing period and immediate retirement has given it a new purpose, showcasing that it was meant to be a disposable aircraft.
The Air Force refers to this concept as “attritable”, which means that the aircraft is expected to experience wear and tear from regular use and combat. Priced at around $2 million, the Valkyrie drone is considered both expensive for everyday standards, but relatively cheap in comparison to the fighter jets it was intended to escort.
The F-35A, a stealthy fighter jet piloted by humans, costs $78 million after years of decreasing prices. Russia’s announcement that their new stealth fighter, the Checkmate, would be priced between $20 million and $30 million, was seen as a more affordable option compared to the F-35.
Even the helmets worn by F-35 pilots are priced at $500,000, which is a quarter more expensive than a Valkyrie drone. Thus, even if the combat-capable Valkyrie drone only has a fraction of the effectiveness of a manned fighter, its low cost makes it a viable budget option.
“The goal of the program was to design, manufacture and flight test an aircraft in 24 months,” said Dave Hart, chief engineer for the Autonomous Collaborative Platforms program, in a statement. “Our flight tests validated this comprehensive system for performance capabilities and took advantage of AFRL’s facilities. When we started this program, we had no idea it would revolutionize Air Force operations.”
The impact of the Valkyrie drone on military operations is not yet known, but it has accomplished something that is not common in military procurement: a rapid transition from concept to a functional prototype and test use cases. The Valkyrie, which was built by Kratos, was partly designed as an airborne target for training exercises, but it can also provide valuable experience for human pilots who might encounter similar drones in combat.
The design principle behind the Valkyrie is to remove all unnecessary parts, as there is no need for excessive design for a target drone. It took only two years to go from concept to the first successful test flight.
Since then, the Valkyrie has performed well in several flights, showing that its subsonic airframe can operate from runways or rails.
The versatility of the airframe and its expendable nature means that the Valkyrie is also capable of testing another crucial component, which the military plans to use for autonomous robots in the skies. This component is the Skyborg program, an autonomous pilot suite that uses drones like the Valkyrie, as well as other models such as the General Atomics’ Avenger and the Kratos-built Mako.
The Valkyrie has also demonstrated that it can function as an aircraft carrier. In 2021, another Valkyrie model released a smaller drone from its bomb bay during flight, showcasing that the escort drone could also carry its own “escort” drone.
In warfare, escort drones such as the Valkyrie, when used in conjunction with manned and unmanned aircraft, will present a significant challenge to air defenses. As long as the drones can communicate with each other and receive commands from human operators, they can protect other aircraft from enemy attack. These drones can also launch missiles or drop bombs.
If the Valkyrie can continue to provide value at its current cost, it is likely that the Air Force’s new exhibit in the museum will be more than just a testament to the success of a small program in the late 2010s. It could also be an indication of a new method of fighting in the air.