Boeing, Kratos and certainly Lockheed are all working on so-called attritable UCAVs that cost millions each, are highly modular and are optionally expendable. Credit: Northrop Grumman.

In the three month long battle for Okinawa, 2,000 Japanese servicemen perished in the infamous kamikaze (divine wind) attacks.

The plan was to sink so many American ships that the US Fifth Fleet would withdraw, abandoning its troops on Okinawa who could then be mopped up by the large Japanese garrison.

It failed, though various forms of kamikaze attacks — including planes, manned rockets and human torpedoes — did sink 36 American ships and damage a further 368, inflicting 10,000 casualties (half of them killed.)

To the Allies, steeped in the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the sanctity of life, the apparent willingness of Japanese servicemen to carry out suicide attacks was profoundly shocking. 

Fast forward to 2020, a pivotal year for the US Air Force’s effort to acquire a new class of autonomous drones under the advanced “Skyborg” program — inexpensive, attributable robotic wingmen that can leverage artificial intelligence and accompany manned fighter jets into battle — and possibly even carry out kamikaze missions.

“I expect that we will do sorties where a set number are expected to fly with the manned systems, and we’ll have crazy new [concepts of operation] for how they’ll be used,” Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper said during an online event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

“I expect that the [human] pilots … will decide, does the Skyborg return and land with them and go to fight another day, or is it the end of its life and it’s going to go on a one-way mission?” Roper said.

According to a report by Jon Harper of Defense News, a suicide mission might be appropriate if there’s an opportunity to hit a “lucrative target” that would justify the cost of losing the drone.

“That’s what I love about them — their versatility and the fact that we can take risks with them” that the military wouldn’t be willing to take with human pilots, Defense News reported.

“Even though we call Skyborg ‘attritable aircraft,’ I think we’ll think of them more like reusable weapons,” he added. “I think we’ll procure them like that … and just buy them at kind of a steady rate.”

The systems could not only fly alongside fighter jets, but also serve as robotic wingmen for other types of aircraft such as bombers and tankers. They would bring a variety of capabilities to the battlefield, serving as sensors, jammers or shooters, Defense News reported.

Brig. Gen. Dale White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, said the military envisions about 15 different potential mission sets for the drones.

Additionally, the platforms could serve as a test bed for a future “R2D2” set of advanced algorithms named after the handy robot in the Star Wars film franchise. The technology is expected to be able to pilot aircraft autonomously, Defense News reported.

“Skyborg is going to be one of the easiest systems to put R2D2 in first because it’s going to be a low-cost system,” Roper said. “It’s meant to take risks. It will be OK if R2D2 has some trouble learning to fly and crashes a few times.”

The Air Force announced in late July that it had awarded indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contracts to Boeing, General Atomics, Northrop Grumman and Kratos Defense, that will enable the four companies to compete for up to US$400 million worth of delivery orders for prototypes.

The contractors were downselected after a competition with 18 participants, Defense News reported.

While most of the vendors won’t talk specifics about prototypes at this stage, it appears Kratos Defense has already turned heads with its XQ-58A “Valkyrie” experimental drone.

Developed for a separate Air Force effort, the Low-Cost Attritable Strike Demonstrator program, it has already conducted several successful test flights.

“Kratos has had the lead in this program/concept but it now has three very competent competitors that have strong pedigrees in unmanned/autonomous systems, solid tech and deep pockets,” Roman Schweizer, managing director for aerospace and defense with the Cowen Washington Research Group, wrote in a newsletter.

“We still believe Kratos will win a contract to develop and deliver a capability for the USAF, but we also think the Skyborg idea will have a wider application and mission set.”

Steven Zaloga, a global UAV market expert with the Teal Group, noted that the Air Force is “really hot” on the idea of loyal wingmen right now.

These types of systems might be the wave of the future, not the remotely piloted drones that took center stage during the Global War on Terrorism, Defense News reported.

“The growth, as far as armed UAVs go, may be more in that direction — not these small, propeller-driven, relatively slow, relatively vulnerable airframes, but rather airframes that are closer to manned aircraft like fighter aircraft and strike aircraft,” he said.

— Defense News/The National WWII Museum