Kratos Defense & Security Solutions expects to deliver its first production unit of the XQ-58A Valkyrie unmanned air vehicle (UAV) to the US Air Force (USAF) “in the next couple of months”.

That’s according to comments from Eric DeMarco, Kratos chief executive, on a first quarter earnings call on 5 May. The company started production of a dozen examples of the stealthy combat UAV on its own dime in 2020, ahead of an anticipated contract with the USAF.

XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator

Source: US Air Force

Kratos is anticipating that the XQ-58A Valkyrie will move toward operations

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Advanced Aircraft Program Executive Office granted the manufacturer a $37.7 million contract in December 2020 for the XQ-58A as part of the Skyborg programme, an effort to create software and hardware for autonomous control of loyal wingman UAVs that can fly and fight alongside manned fighters, Kratos said on 7 May. The Skyborg autonomy core system, developed by Leidos, is intended to be used to control a variety of UAVs.

Kratos declines to comment on the number of Valkyries that would be delivered to the USAF as part of that contract. It had previously used two company-owned XQ-58As to conduct demonstrations and experiments with the service. In February, as part of a 2020 fourth-quarter earnings call, DeMarco said that he anticipated the company delivering six to 10 production aircraft in 2021, depending on customer demand.

“We have a hot production line,” he says, more recently, in the first-quarter earnings call. “We’re not building prototypes.”

“I have every expectation that the Valkyrie is going to be deployed”, DeMarco adds.

Skyborg could reach initial operating capability as early as 2023, the US Air Force Research Laboratory has said.

Kratos has said previously that the cost of the XQ-58A would be $2-3 million per unit, depending on the quantity ordered. The UAV is classified as an “attritable” aircraft, an asset cheap enough to be lost to combat attrition and then quickly replaced without breaking the bank.

The Skyborg programme kicked off in April with the first test of the autonomy core system aboard a Kratos UTAP-22 Mako UAV at Tyndall AFB in Florida.

“Follow-on sequence of experimentation events planned over the next several months includes the XQ-58A in the Skyborg configuration supporting a range of experimentation events,” says Kratos. “The aim of these events in the Skyborg Vanguard programme is to integrate autonomous attritable UAV technology with open missions systems to enable manned-unmanned teaming.”

The contract also includes integrating multiple “customer-defined mission payloads and customer-defined autonomy” in coordination with Leidos, says the company.