The US Air Force is rethinking the way it plans for war in the Pacific Ocean. It is eyeing a new class of unmanned air vehicle that could be hidden inside shipping containers and spread across small islands in the western Pacific. Should war ever come, the UAVs could be rocket launched within a matter of hours in massive volleys from dozens or even thousands of secret sites.
Facing precise, long-range cruise and ballistic missile, as well as bomber, threats from China, the US Air Force (USAF) is rethinking the way it plans for war in the Pacific Ocean.
The service is worried that its fighter and bomber fleet could be destroyed on the runway or on an aircraft carrier by a shower of missiles before taking off.
In response, it is eyeing a new class of unmanned air vehicle (UAV) that could be hidden inside shipping containers and spread across small islands in the western Pacific. Should war ever come, the UAVs could be rocket launched within a matter of hours in massive volleys from dozens or even thousands of secret sites.
At the forefront of this concept is Kratos Defense and Security’s Deployment Container System, a standard ISO shipping container that is to hide the company’s stealthy XQ-58A Valkyrie. The UAV is an early example of what the USAF calls attritable aircraft; inexpensive drones built for a limited number of flights that the US treasury could afford to lose to combat attrition in large numbers.
Kratos plans to demonstrate the launch of its XQ-58A from the shipping container system by the third quarter of 2020, says Steve Fendley, president of the company’s unmanned system division. The firm is still working to finish its first example of the Deployment Container System, he says.
The UAV would require five or fewer personnel to be launched, says Fendley. Assembling and launching the XQ-58A will take “a very small number of hours”, he says.
The UAV would be launched with a similar rail and rocket-assisted takeoff system that is currently used for the XQ-58A’s test flight programme with the US Air Force Research Laboratory. The rail launcher, combined with a parachute recovery system, means the UAV would not need a runway.
The Deployment Container System is funded via Kratos Defense’s internal research and development dollars. The company hopes to demonstrate the launcher to potential US Department of Defense (DoD) customers in order to win a contract.
The USAF appears interested.
The service is looking for new ways to use “deception” to throw adversaries of their balance, General Charles Q. Brown Jr., commander of Pacific Air Forces, said in September 2019.
“If a 20-foot container can actually contain some type of weapon system and I have 1,000 20-foot containers spread throughout the region, as an adversary, which one is the one that actually has the capability? Which one is just empty?” he says.
Hiding weapons inside shipping containers is not a new concept. In 2010, Russian company Kontsern-Morinformsistema-Agat unveiled Club-K, a cruise missile launcher concealed in a shipping container. The company advertises the weapon system secretly placed on the back of a cargo ship, train or semi-truck.
General Brown explains that deception forces an enemy to guess at targets, making it difficult for the adversary to win. “I’m always looking to make it difficult for an adversary and decrease their confidence if they want to go to war,” he says.
Attritable aircraft can be partnered with a manned aircraft, as in the US Air Force Research Laboratory Loyal Wingman experiment, notes Brown. The UAVs can carry weapons, sensors and electronic warfare equipment. The drones can be sent after a target in swarms, using numbers to overwhelm and paralyse an adversary’s defences.
The Valkyrie can carry small diameter bombs on its wings and within an internal weapons bay. Fendley has said it’s hypothetically capable of firing small missiles, such as the Raytheon Peregrine or the Lockheed Martin Cuda.
The XQ-58A has a 3,000nm range (5,560km). If launched from Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, Japan, it could reach into China’s industrial heartland, with enough fuel left over for a return trip.
Aircraft range is a major concern for the US DoD as its Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II stealth fighter is limited to 1,200nm. The US Navy’s F-35C and US Marines Corps’ F-35B have even shorter legs. That means those services would have to risk sending in an aircraft carrier or amphibious assault ship close to China’s shore, within range of Beijing’s missiles and combat aircraft.
To get around some of its range problems, the USAF is looking at pre-positioning weapons trailers, fuel bladders and Meal, Ready-to-Eat rations at various airstrips across the Pacific Ocean. Such forward area refueling points are intended to be used as pit stops for fighters as they fly around the battlefield dodging enemy fire.
The service has practiced this concept with its Rapid Raptor exercises in recent years. That concept seeks to quickly deploy four Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors to any forward operating base in the world within 24h using one Boeing C-17 Globemaster III.
By quickly and repeatedly shuffling F-22s around the battlefield, the USAF hopes to get closer to targets while making it difficult for an adversary like China to hit aircraft on the tarmac.
“How do we work to generate combat power from a range of locations?” Brown says. “We’ve got to be light and lean and agile.”
Kratos notes the containerised XQ-58A could be quickly moved around the battlefield in a Lockheed Martin C-130J.
Setting up pre-positioned weapons will require the USA to keep and expand alliances in the Pacific Ocean. General Brown notes that USAF Pacific Command is still surveying air fields and land in the region as potential bases.
“There’s much more of a partnership across the region with the United States, Australia, Japan, Korea, for example, then what the [People’s Republic of China] has,” says General Brown. “So I think we have a few more options than they do.”
Should the USA strike an agreement to place a containerised XQ-58A Valkyrie on another country’s desert island, the drone could go a long time before ever being launched. Kratos is still determining the exact length of time the UAV could go without maintenance, noting tricky issues with the effectiveness of the fuel and jet engine lubrication.
“I can tell you something like a year is readily achievable,” says Fendley. “Something like 10 years is more challenging, but certainly not out of the realm.”
The company is building in a diagnostic system into its Deployment Container System. “You can poll the system from outside the container to determine whether or not the system is healthy, and ready to be deployed and operated,” says Fendley.
Kratos is aiming to demonstrate the containerised concept as soon as possible, though if it doesn’t receive flight permissions in time it will conduct a mock launch. In that case, the XQ-58A‘s launch sequence would be demonstrated right up to the point of takeoff, and then a nearby surrogate UAV would takeoff, fly and be recovered to prove the concept.
The initial test will show the concept using the XQ-58A, but Kratos stresses its other attritable UAVs could also be containerised, such as the smaller UTAP-22 Mako. The company says in some cases multiple UAVs could be stored in one container.
Because of the XQ-58A’s size – it’s 9.1m (30ft) long and has an 8.2m wingspan – the aircraft will be stored with its wings removed. Kratos declines to say what size of shipping container will be used, but notes it’s one of the standard ISO sizes.
The shipping container is likely to cost 1/8 to 1/10 of the XQ-58A’s price, which is projected to be between $2 million to $3 million per unit, depending on the quantity ordered, says Kratos.
Concealing and launching the XQ-58A from inside a submarine, as cruise and ballistic missiles are, doesn’t appear to be a near-term prospect.
“Might be tough for Valkyrie,” says Fendley, noting the UAV’s large size. “It would be very cool. Certainly from a physics perspective, it’s possible. From a practicality perspective, I think it might be pretty hard.”
Kratos has other internally funded launch systems in development, Fendley says. He declines to say what those are.