A recent $40.8 million research and development contract to Kratos Defense and Security Solutions for an “attritable” unmanned air system could signal a change in a market that has long produced large, low- and slow-flying systems.

On 8 July, the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) awarded Kratos the contract for the low-cost attritable strike UAS demonstration (LCASD), which will develop a long-range, transonic, limited-life air vehicle. The company, which will also put up $33.5 million of its own investment, should complete first flight in 24 months.

The LCASD would augment the USAF’s fighter force with small, tactical weapons, but at about $3 million per vehicle, the UAS would be cheap enough for the service not to mind losing them.

“It shifts the focus from time-on-station, endurance-type aircraft that have been used in the air space to a more agile system that is survivable in contested arenas,” Jeff Herro, senior vice-president of business development for Kratos’s unmanned systems division, tells FlightGlobal. “They may choose to lose these. It depends on the mission shot and if that happens, you didn’t break the bank and you didn’t hurt a person.”

Kratos produces small target drones for the USAF and US Army. At more than 6.1m (20ft) long and 3m wide, the new LCASD would be larger than the company's largest target system, the BQM-167. While its aerial targets use turbojet engines, Kratos will use a commercially available engine with better fuel consumption, Herro says.

“There is an existing off-the-shelf turbofan we’ll be using for our demo,” he says. “Whether or not that remains to be the final engine we’ll determine at a later date.”

The rocket-propelled air vehicle can be launched without a runway and would fly at Mach 0.9 with a 1,500nm (2,770km) range. The LCASD should be capable of carrying 226kg (500lb) of weapons inside the aircraft and on its wings, including at least two GBU-39 small diameter bombs.

The LCASD’s success could open up additional opportunities for Kratos, which has set its sights on the emerging tactical unmanned vehicle market. The AFRL has expressed a desire to continue developing the system using government-funded technology maturation spirals worth an eventual $100 million, according to Kratos.

Source: FlightGlobal.com