US Air Force could use swarms of drones to overpower enemy defence systems

Jamie Johnson
·3-min read
Air Force Research Laboratory successfully completed the XQ-58A Valkyrie's sixth flight test and first release from its internal weapons bay - Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, United States
Air Force Research Laboratory successfully completed the XQ-58A Valkyrie's sixth flight test and first release from its internal weapons bay - Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, United States

The US Air Force could use swarms of drones to overpower enemy defence systems, as new images show state-of-the-art aircraft launching their own autonomous payloads.

As America looks towards the future of aerial warfare, the sleek, stealthy, Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie has been designed as a “loyal wingman” to F-35 fighter jets, capable of flying beside, connecting to and being controlled by the fighter pilots.

The unmanned drone is difficult to spot on radar and could be sent ahead to relay information back to the fighter pilots, helping them to identify potential threats early.

But new pictures taken at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona show that the drone is also capable of launching its own drones, with the ALTIUS-600 – a reconnaissance vehicle which can double up as a missile – being dropped from its payload bay.

The test points towards America’s increasing use of affordable, high-performance unmanned air vehicles which could be used to “swarm” and overpower threats in the air or on the ground.

The Valkyrie is known as an “attritable aircraft” and costs $2 million.

In comparison, single-use Tomahawk cruise missiles cost around $1.4 million, while an F-35 fighter jet is at least $80 million, plus considerable running costs.

This means that the new drones are cheaper to replace and commanders can take greater risks in the battlefield. The Valkyrie also offers “open architecture” that allows them to modify the aircraft to suit different mission requirements with different payload options.

This development is thought to be a signal that the US is moving towards high-volume, low-cost aircraft rather than the eye-wateringly expensive specialist jets which have all the technology required on board.

It also opens the door to the “swarming tactic” where targets can be surrounded by multiple aircraft and attacked from all sides.

The Valkyrie is nearly 29ft long with a wingspan of 22ft. It can fly at 652mph up to a height of 45,000ft and has a range of 2,449 miles.

Its payload, the ALTIUS-600 is just over three feet long, has a wingspan of just over eight feet, can fly up to to 276 miles per hour for up to four hours, and holds a 1-3kg payload.

"Swarming allows you to build large numbers of low-cost expendable agents that can be used to overwhelm an adversary," Paul Scharre, from the Centre for a New American Security, told BBC News.

"This reverses the long trend of rising aircraft costs and reducing quantities.”

Alyson Turri, demonstration programme manager, said after the launch: “This is the sixth flight of the Valkyrie and the first time the payload bay doors have been opened in flight.”

“In addition to this first SUAS separation demonstration, the XQ-58A flew higher and faster than previous flights.”

A decision on whether the Pentagon wants to move forward with mass production of the Valkyrie is expected to come later this year.