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U.S. Navy Buys Two "Killer" Fighter Drones for Experimental Program

Valkyrie drone
A Valkyrie drone takes off with rocket assist from a launch rack at Laguna Army Air Field (USAF)

Published Jan 2, 2023 10:06 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy is following the Air Force's lead in testing out a new low-cost, autonomous, stealthy fighter drone, which could contribute to the development of the service's manned/unmanned aviation teaming concept. 

The Navy has committed $15 million to buy two XQ-58A Valkyrie combat drones from California-based manufacturer Kratos under a no-bid contract, the Pentagon announced Monday. Unlike the Navy's MQ-25 aerial tanker drone, which is unarmed from the ground up, the XQ-58A is being purchased for an explicitly combative "Penetrating Affordable Autonomous Collaborative Killer" portfolio.

The program's name fits the Valkyrie's design objectives: stealth, range, autonomy, teaming capability and lethality, all at an attritable price point. The Navy's contract for delivery includes "weapon system payloads," and the test units should be delivered before the end of September - a rapid timetable, since Kratos has previously said that it only plans to build 12 drones on an initial production run for the USAF this year. 

Valkyrie is intended to be a semi-disposable weapons system with the price tag of a high-end missile. At full-rate production, Kratos believes that it should be able to get cost per unit down into the $2-4 million range, which is comparable to the price of one AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM).

With a maximum range of about 2,500 nm and no need to make a round trip, Valkyrie could reach the Taiwan Strait from Guam. This is far beyond the 700 nm combat radius of a manned F-35C, and in the event of a conflict in the East or South China Seas, that kind of range could allow U.S. carriers to stay further away from China's long-range missile systems.

Carrier aviation with Valkyrie would be different, as the aircraft has no landing gear. It takes off with rocket assist from a fixed rail, without a runway, and it lands with a parachute system. A fighter that launches like a missile could open up the possibility of fixed-wing naval aviation from new classes of vessels - potentially any vessel capable of carrying a container. Kratos has previously shown a mockup of a 30-foot Valkyrie drone and launcher installed in one 40-foot box.