At the end of World War II, the United States boasted around 300,000 combat aircraft. Today, America has only around 13,400. Of course, the U.S. 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. America’s aircraft now cost more per unit than they ever have in history, and with nations like Russia and China now boasting advanced air defense platforms, it seems likely that even America’s stealthy technological marvels in the sky would suffer losses in such a near-peer conflict.

Therein lies the real value in the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie drone. The Valkyrie, which currently exists only as a set of technology demonstrators, 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. But most importantly of all, it’s cheap. So cheap, in fact, that the Air Force considers them an “attritable asset.” If that word looks foreign to you (as it does to my spell check) I don’t blame you — but the basic premise is that the Air Force is looking for drone platforms that are cheap enough to be seen as somewhat disposable. At between $2-3 million per unit, the Valkyrie fits that bill to a T. In fact, at that price point, Kratos’ drone can compete with cruise missiles on price.

The Valkyrie has an internal weapons bay capable of carrying two small diameter bombs, putting it on par with the F-117 Nighthawk in that regard, and plans are already underway to couple the drone with the Air Force’s Loyal Wingman program, which would give F-35 pilots the ability to control a veritable swarm of support Valkyries during combat operations. These support drones could carry out attacks on ground positions, serve as an extended sensor array, or even sacrifice themselves to save the manned aircraft in heavily contested airspace. Some drones could even forgo their weapons payload for an electronic warfare or surveillance suite for specific mission requirements.

Now, Kratos has unveiled a Valkyrie launcher system that fits inside a standard shipping container, which makes it that much easier to transport and deploy these low-cost, high capability drones anywhere on earth.

 “Kratos provides ground support equipment that enables agility, remote operations, and deterrence,” a sign on the launcher read at last week’s AUSA conference. “These transportable and deployable solutions offer nondescript launch modules for unmanned aerial/underwater systems and missile defense platforms.”

A launch system that can be housed inside a shipping container makes this weapon system transportable via any number of means, including by rail or aircraft. However, as Joseph Trevithick at the War Zone has pointed out, shipping containers are also well suited to amphibious warships with large flight decks, like the Wasp and America-class amphibious assault ships operated by the Marine Corps. Some of these vessels are already working toward the Marine Corps’ “Lightning Carrier” concept, which will see the deployment of numerous vertical-landing capable F-35Bs in the future. The addition of Valkyrie drones could make the Lightning Carrier concept even more deadly for America’s opponents.


 

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