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.
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.
At an estimated two-to-three million dollars each, these unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) cost about the same as a single Patriot missile–which, it pays to note, isn’t exactly reusable. Compare that price to the anticipated cost of new F-15X fighters or the F-35 after the next anticipated price drop, both at $80 million per airframe, and you begin to see how the Valkyrie could change the way America fights its wars.
For the cost of a single new and un-stealthy F-15X, the United States could field a swarm of 26 Valkyrie drones. These aircraft would make difficult targets for even the best anti-aircraft platforms thanks to their stealthy design, but because of their numbers and low cost, it wouldn’t matter if Russian or Chinese air defenses had no trouble locking on at all. At three-million apiece, America can afford to overwhelm air defenses by sacrificing redundant drones throughout the operation.
Hundreds of Valkyries equipped with different loadouts to provide electronic warfare and radar jamming while others deployed munitions against fortified targets could lead the way into contested airspace, followed by American F-35s and F-22s tasked with engaging and downing enemy fighters scrambled to take on the American assault. Using Valkyries for the initial barrage would severely limit American losses in terms of high-dollar platforms and pilots, while dealing the enemy a devastating blow.
The Valkyrie is also designed to use rockets for short-distance takeoffs without the need for full airstrips, making it seem possible that we may eventually see a similar design on U.S. Navy carriers. The range offered by these platforms would actually be close enough to launch from carriers outside of Chinese anti-ship missile range, engage targets on Chinese soil, and return — something no carrier-based platform can currently do.
To offer a frame of reference regarding cost, the United States lobbed an estimated $92.4-million worth of missiles at three Syrian targets early last year as a punitive action following Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons against rebels and civilians. That same figure could have purchased 30 reusable Valkyries with some cash leftover.
Having stealth aircraft with the same approximate payload capacity of an F-117 Nighthawk, a 2,000-mile range, and a price tag that rings in at less than some rapper’s cars offers the U.S. Air Force an opportunity to return to the days of overwhelming air superiority through volume as well as technology. Russia’s S-400 missile defense system may well be able to spot and target an encroaching Valkyrie, but even if the system performs as advertised, it still won’t stand much of a chance against three dozen of them.
“XQ-58A is the first example of a class of UAV that is defined by low procurement and operating costs while providing game changing combat capability,” said Doug Szczublewski, AFRL’s XQ-58A Program Manager.