The Air Force will shortly launch its effort to buy Skyborg drone prototypes, according to the official running the unmanned wingman program.
The service will begin soliciting aircraft this month and plans to award contracts to the winning designs by the end of the summer, Advanced Aircraft Program Executive Officer Col. Dale White told Air Force Magazine. Chosen drones will then head into experiments to show off what they can do. White did not say how many airframes the service plans to buy.
Officials envision Skyborg as an unmanned aircraft that would take direction from fighter jets and its own artificial intelligence in combat. Skyborg could fly ahead for reconnaissance or carry out airstrikes without endangering the manned aircraft, and could ferry around a box that allows planes with different communications systems to talk to each other.
Skyborg should also be able to autonomously avoid other aircraft, terrain, obstacles, and hazardous weather, and take off and land on its own, the service said in March 2019.
The Air Force hopes Skyborg’s manned-unmanned teaming will give the service an edge over other advanced militaries, even if USAF misses its goal of growing to 386 squadrons. Presumptive next Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown Jr. recently told senators the Valkyrie will offer pilots greater situational awareness and strike capability.
While the Air Force says it has not settled on a single aircraft that will become Skyborg, it often touts Kratos Defense’s XQ-58A Valkyrie as a top contender. Valkyrie is a joint venture between the Air Force Research Laboratory and Kratos to develop comparatively cheaper drones that can assist more advanced aircraft and are easily replaceable if lost. The XQ-58A finished its fourth flight test in January, and is slated to fly in the Air Force’s next Advanced Battle Management System experiment later this year.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin are also planning to jump into the competition. Boeing told Air Force Magazine May 12 the company plans to submit a variant of its “loyal wingman” combat drone designed for the Royal Australian Air Force.
“We have been tracking the Skyborg program since inception and are eager to support the customer’s needs,” a Boeing spokeswoman said. “[Airpower Teaming System] is designed for operational requirements that we see customers needing around the world. We continue to see interest across the Department of Defense in this capability, and we’re engaged with the U.S. industrial base on opportunities to missionize the aircraft for U.S. needs.”
A Lockheed spokeswoman said the company plans to submit a bid “leveraging the leading-edge approaches Skunk Works is known for.” General Atomics said May 18 it plans to support the program’s requirements as well.
Northrop Grumman has not weighed in.
Skyborg is one of three AFRL “vanguard” initiatives that are trying to speed the time it takes to go from research to operational use. The Air Force is asking for $157.6 million across its three vanguard programs in fiscal 2021, and seeks a $25 million plus-up for Skyborg through the unfunded priorities list.
“This joint effort allows the Advanced Aircraft/AFRL Skyborg team to fulfill the spirit of the vanguard programs by replacing the traditional transition from … laboratory to acquisition program office,” White said.
The service has said it wants Skyborg ready for operations by the end of 2023.