Kratos Announces Two Low Cost Wing-Man Drones

Kratos-built swarming drones will soon be paired with manned aircraft to form an even more potent force.

Defense company Kratos has announced that it will debut two low-cost, stealthy drones at the Paris Air Show later this month.

Although drones have become a mainstream component in combat operations, their roles have largely been similar to manned aircraft. Drones surveil large swaths of land, follow targets and neutralize combatants in the much the same way that manned aircraft operate.

However, futurists in the U.S. Airforce have started to imagine a completely different role for drones, seeing them as support craft that could augment the capabilities of manned fighters through swarm tactics.

A small swarm of Valkyrie drones. (Image Courtesy of Kratos.)

A small swarm of Valkyrie drones. (Image Courtesy of Kratos.)

As part of the U.S. Air Force’s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT), the service wants to create inexpensive, expendable drones that can accompany a manned fighter, providing cover, allowing greater, more granular vision, and making it even more effective against enemy aircraft and ground targets.

To meet this demand, Kratos has created two drones, the XQ-222 Valkyrie and the UTAP-22 Mako, both of which can be built for between $2M and $3M, and which have the capacity to carry munitions and own a stealthy exterior. What separates the Mako from the Valkyrie boils down to size and speed. The Mako, which has already started partnered flight trials, is faster with a top speed of Mach .91. The craft also has a smaller wingspan, measuring a compact 10ft.

The Valkyrie on the other hand has a wingspan of 22ft, making it large for a partner drone, but also expanding the type of payload that the XQ-222 can carry. The drone will also be able to cruise at Mach .85, a bit slow for chasing down fifth generation fighters, but just enough to keep pace if an intense dogfight isn’t in the making.

But how does the U.S. Airforce plan to deploy these drones? Bill Barron, a U.S. Air Force project manager gave a few clues about how they might work in the field.

A Kratos Mako drone (Image Courtesy of Kratos.)

A Kratos Mako drone (Image Courtesy of Kratos.)

“If you team up a bunch of these aircraft with an F-35 or an F-22, or some of our surveillance assets, you’d basically be able to cover more space at a lower cost point,” said Baron. “In a lot of cases, we don’t have enough airplanes and as you look to the future, most likely our fleet sizes are going to continue to be more limited, so this is a way to provide a force multiplier.”

With the Mako already engaged in flight tests, and the Valkyrie set to debut in early 2018, it appears that the era of drone-augmented air operations is quickly approaching. What that means for the future of combat tactics is a bit uncertain. However, as wing man drone technology matures, there’s no reason to doubt that strong AI and ever-devastating weapons will completely change the way that warfare is conducted from the skies.