The US Air Force (USAF) is ready to move beyond experimentation with unmanned combat aircraft and toward acquiring and fielding the next-generation unmanned air vehicles (UAVs).

Fielding loyal wingman UAVs is a top priority for the service, secretary of the USAF Frank Kendall said during Defense One’s Outlook 2022 virtual conference on 9 December.

US Air Force Research Labratory XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator - 2

Source: US Air Force Research Laboratory

Loyal wingman types like the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator could be paired with manned aircraft

The USAF has experimented with loyal wingman UAVs in recent years. However, it has yet to commit to fielding unmanned combat aircraft.

The service is analysing and preparing to feed technologies developed from experiments into full-scale development and then production programmes.

“We are going to take a period of time to sort all that out and then we are going to get onto something that we are going to field,” Kendall says. “It’s a commitment to going forward in a direction that we have been thinking about and experimenting with but haven’t committed to before. So, that’s a major change actually.”

In recent years, the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) helped fund the development of the Kratos Defense XQ-58A Valkyrie loyal wingman UAV. The research laboratory has also funded development of Skyborg, a software and hardware package designed to allow a variety of low-cost, loyal wingman UAVs to fly and carry out missions autonomously.

Artist rendering of NGAD at Sunset credit Lockheed Martin

Source: Lockheed Martin

Artist rendering of NGAD, which could play quarterback to several loyal wingman UAVs

Now, the USAF wants to “operationalise unmanned combat aircraft in the fighter category”, says Kendall, adding that the UAVs would be paired with the service’s Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter, the top-secret combat aircraft it plans to use to replace the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor in the 2030s.

“The idea here is you have one or more – I’d say nominally up to five – unmanned combat aircraft that are controlled by a single modern manned aircraft,” he says. “NGAD is the one we are looking at principally, but you could also do that with F-22 potentially or F-35.

“The manned aircraft is calling plays and is using those other unmanned aircraft as a formation to do things that make sense tactically. This opens up a whole bunch of opportunities,” says Kendall.

The exact mix of manned and unmanned aircraft, what types of sensors and weapons the UAVs would carry, as well as what sort of plays would be pre-programmed into the unmanned aircraft for the operator to select needs further analysis, he says.

USAF B-21 artist rendering

Source: US Air Force

The top-secret B-21 can penetrate enemy airspace but is expensive

The loyal wingman concept will also be extended to the top-secret Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider stealth bomber.

“The B-21 is a very expensive aircraft. It has a certain payload and range. We would like to amplify that capability. It has the ability to penetrate, which is valuable,” says Kendall. “What we want is something that can go operate with it. I wouldn’t say ‘accompany it’ necessarily. The tactics are very much to be determined.”

The USAF is trying to figure out how UAVs should be networked to and controlled from a manned aircraft, he adds.

Kendall adds that when the B-21 is unveiled to the public – expected in 2022 – not much will be revealed.

“We are going to acknowledge that we are doing this… There will obviously be more information at the classified level, but we are not going to say a lot more about what we are going to do in the public,” he says. “We don’t want to give our potential enemies a head start on any of this.”