An experimental aircraft designed to demonstrate a radical new concept in modern air warfare will enter flight testing this autumn, says Maj Gen William Cooley, commander of the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).

The XQ-58A Valkyrie, built by target drone maker Kratos, embodies one approach to the AFRL’s concept of a “Loyal Wingman”, a low-cost, unmanned aircraft that could expand the combat capacity of a dwindling fleet of manned fighters and bombers without busting the service’s budget.

The Valkyrie “has a great deal of interest” within the USAF, Cooley said on 10 July at an event hosted by the Air Force Association.

“The basic idea is can we make a capable combat aircraft very low cost by using modern manufacturing techniques and drive the cost as low as possible,” Cooley says.

AFRL officials launched the XQ-58A under the low cost attritable strike demonstrator (LCASD) programme. The use of the relatively unfamiliar “attritable” term was intentional, Cooley says. The AFRL’s programme managers wanted to make it clear the drone is not disposable. If such a system were fielded, the goal would be to reuse the aircraft as much as possible, but losing the losing aircraft to accidents or hostile fire would be financially tolerable.

That approach stands in contrast not only to highly capable manned airdraft, such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35, but also to previous concepts for a highly capable — and expensive — unmanned combat air vehicle.

The AFRL now frames the operating concept for the LCASD as a Loyal Wingman. Instead of operating on its own, the XQ-58A demonstrator will be teamed with a manned fighter, such as an F-35.

Details fo the XQ-58A design have not been released. The AFRL is careful to describe a rendering of the aircraft released last year as an “artistic concept” that may not accurately reflect the real vehicle. Full details of the configuration remain secret, but the AFRL confirms the XQ-58A is 9.14m (30ft) long with an 8.23m wingspan. It also can carry a 272kg (600lb) payload internally or mid-wing, the AFRL says.

It follows a series of experiments in 2015 and 2017 funded by the AFRL called Have Raider. Lockheed’s Skunk Works division adapted the controls of an F-16 to fly fully autonomously, although a safety pilot was present for the demonstrations. In the second series of tests, the autonomous F-16 responded by itself to a pop-up target, identifying and responding to the new threat without human involvement.

If the USAF moves forward with a Loyal Wingman, one option could be taking retired combat aircraft, such as F-16s and B-1s, updating their computers with autonomous software, and returning the stored aircraft to combat as unmanned partners for manned aircraft. But AFRL seems to prefer taking the approach exemplified by the XQ-58A.

“Potentially it may make more sense to build on a programme that we’ve been advancing for a number of years and that’s the low cost attritable aircraft,” Cooley says. “The XQ-58A is the first step.”