The Space Force might have become a reality, but the U.S. Air Force is closer than any other branch to getting a futuristic weapon.
Last November, the Air Force tested the X-61A Gremlin Air Vehicle. A remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA), the Gremlin is designed to be used in mass and to be deployed from a C-130A aircraft.
More specifically, the Gremlins are aimed at overwhelming the defenses of an enemy; they also provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), electronic warfare (EW), signals intelligence (SIGINT), and strike capabilities to commanders.
A Gremlins air vehicle participates in a flight test at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, in November 2019. (U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).
The final test, which took place at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, lasted for almost two hours. The combined Dynetics, a tech firm that won the Gremlin contract back in 2018, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) team that is overseeing the project managed to test several functions of the Gremlin.
The RPA, however, crashed and was completely destroyed during the recovery process of the test (a mechanical failure prevented the main parachute, which is intended to assist the RPA in its landing, from deploying properly).
In a press interview, Tim Keeter, the Gremlin program management for Dynetics, said that the test gives the team “a lot of confidence going forward that this vehicle can fly where it’s supposed to fly, how it’s supposed to fly. Now the team can be principally focused on the other portion of our program plan … which is to successfully rendezvous with a C-130, dock with our docking system … and safely recover the vehicle.”
One of the four prototypes (Dynetics).
When the Gremlin becomes operational it will enhance the ability of the Air Force to gain the-vital-to-win-a-war (or not lose one) air superiority in a future conflict.
According to DARPA’s description, the Gremlins were “named for the imaginary, mischievous imps that became the good luck charms of many British pilots during World War II. [T]he program envisions launching groups of UASs from existing large aircraft such as bombers or transport aircraft—as well as from fighters and other small, fixed-wing platforms—while those planes are out of range of adversary defenses. When the gremlins complete their mission, a C-130 transport aircraft would retrieve them in the air and carry them home, where ground crews would prepare them for their next use within 24 hours.”
Back in 2018, Dynetics won a $38.6 million, 21-month contract for the third phase of the Gremlin project, which focuses on how the RPAs are recovered mid-air by C-130s.
The recovery part is key since the Gremlins are intended to be reusable.
“If I have an expendable vehicle, at some point I’m not going to want to be able to use those things because they’re just too expensive,” added Keeter. “But if I can recover them and then amortize the cost of that vehicle over 10 or 20 or 30 sorties, maybe there’s a bend in the curve somewhere that really will allow us to benefit from these smaller, more affordable, attritable [remotely-piloted aircraft] systems.”