The US Navy is going full speed ahead on replacing F-18 fighters jets with unmanned aircraft, hoping to eventually have a 40/60 unmanned to manned aircraft mix. But not everyone is sold on the idea. Credit: Boeing photo.

When billionaire Elon Musk told a crowd of US Air Force brass at a Florida symposium that the era of the manned fighter jet “was over,” there was much consternation and a few smiles in the audience.

The fact is, change is literally in the air, as the USAF and the Royal Australian Air Force are indeed making progress with efforts to develop unmanned jets that can serve as “loyal wingmen” for their manned counterparts.

Under the concept, robotic systems can accompany fighters as decoys, weapons carriers or sensor platforms, according to a report from Connie Lee at National Defense.

The USAF’s effort is dubbed the XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, which is an unmanned, long-range, “high subsonic” aircraft, according to the service.

The 30-foot-long platform is being developed by Kratos Defense and Security Solutions and falls under the Air Force Research Laboratory’s low-cost attritable aircraft technology portfolio, the report said. The XQ-58A has a cruise speed of more than .7 Mach and a maximum range of about 3,000 nautical miles.

“We’ve been flying very regularly since March of 2019 as we demonstrate the system and evaluate different mission capabilities, and effectively perform different mission scenarios in these flights,” said Steve Fendley, president of Kratos’ unmanned systems division.

The system’s first flight lasted for over an hour at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, the Air Force said in a news release. The service will hold multiple flight tests over two phases to test the system’s functionality, aerodynamic performance and launch and recovery systems, the report said.

The company was awarded a US $40.8 million cost-share contract from the Air Force Research Lab in 2016 to develop the design, intended to be a low-cost, affordable solution for tactical unmanned aerial systems operations, the report said.

In October, the company found an anomaly, which was fixed in time for the January flight. The problem occurred with the aircraft’s parachute recovery system and caused damage to the aircraft during its landing phase.

Kratos was awarded a $40.8 million cost-share contract from the Air Force Research Lab to develop the XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator. Credit: USAF photo.

Boeing Australia is also working on an R&D effort with the Royal Australian Air Force through the loyal wingman advanced development program, the report said.

The company’s aircraft is called the airpower teaming system, or ATS, which is about 38 feet long and can fly over 2,000 nautical miles, according to the company.

Jerad Hayes, director of autonomous aviation and technology at Boeing defense, space and security sector, said the aircraft will be able to support a broad range of missions.

Plans include building three prototypes, which will be used to demonstrate operational concepts. First flight is scheduled for this year in Australia, the report said.

Boeing declined to provide specific information on the platform’s sensors and payloads, but Hayes noted that they can be swapped out quickly to meet different needs, the report said.

“In general, the airpower teaming system ‘baseline’ aircraft is one that each customer can tailor via the ATS’ modular design, where sensors/payloads can be swapped out quickly for varying mission needs,” he said.

To demonstrate the platform’s mission flexibility, the company created a “digital” twin of the aircraft that has been flown under various scenarios to test missions systems.

Boeing is also incorporating artificial intelligence capabilities into the aircraft. These are critical because autonomous platforms need to be able to fly independently and safely while working alongside manned counterparts, the report said.

“The artificial intelligence algorithms and behaviors not only have to be created but also extensively tested in the lab and in the field,” Hayes said. “In Australia, that work is well advanced.”