The United States has long led the world in the development and use of stealth technology in aviation. Starting (operationally) with the F-117 Nighthawk and continuing with the forthcoming B-21 Raider bomber, America’s lead in the realm of low observability has long been the product of both the country’s willingness to invest in tech aimed at curbing an aircraft’s detection, and the nation’s massive defense budget that allows for the development and procurement of aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapons initiative in human history.

All of this emphasis on expensive R&D and advanced platforms does come with a downside, however: an extremely high per-unit cost for each airplane. As a result, the number of aircraft at America’s disposal has been on a steady decline for decades. With new platforms filling broader roles and the average unit price per aircraft climbing steadily, the number of aircraft the United States can throw into a conflict has shrunk dramatically over the years. At the end of World War II, the United States boasted around 300,000 combat aircraft. Today, America has only around 13,400. America still has more air power than any nation on the globe, but there’s something to be said for that loss of sheer volume when it comes to developing strategies for a future large-scale conflict.

The Air Force's new stealth drone has a huge advantage over Russian and Chinese air defenses
USAF F-22 Raptors and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (USAF)

That’s where the XQ-58A Valkyrie could change everything, stacking the air power deck back squarely in favor of the United States. The Valkyrie, which currently exists only as a technology demonstrator, is called a “long-range, high subsonic unmanned air vehicle” by the Air Force. It offers a low degree of observability (just how stealthy the platform is remains the subject of some debate) and an exceptionally long range of somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 nautical miles.

Its payload capacity is fairly small compared to many combat jets, with room for just two small diameter bombs or some electronic warfare or surveillance equipment, and the platform isn’t capable of achieving supersonic speeds. However, it offers one significant strength that more than offsets vulnerabilities posed by its limited weapons and speed: it’s incredibly cheap.