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The Air Force’s First Combat Fighter Drones Will Fly Next Year

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In a concept seemingly ripped from the imaginations of 1980’s video game creators, U.S. Air Force pilots Are about to get drone wingmen. Unmanned vehicles will be able to accompany human pilots as they fly into danger. The new XQ-58A “Valkyrie” may be a cost effective way to bolster the abilities of pilots without having to put pilots in danger.

“Kratos, a builder of target drones, has been developing the XQ-58A. Under the Air Force’s ‘loyal wingman’ concept, a drone wingman could act in concert with its crewed partner to shoot down enemy fighters, run interference for the crewed airplane as it carries out an attack, or suppress and destroy enemy air defenses before the crewed plane enters range,” Popular Mechanics writes.

The XQ-58A grew out of the Air Force’s Low-Cost Attritable Strike Demonstrator (LCASD) program. The LCASD was designed to add “more airframes, firepower, and capability to the Air Force without building crazy-expensive new fighter jets,” PM adds. “After all, not every mission needs a fully functional aircraft with pilot onboard.”

Like fighter escorts for long-range bombers, though, the XQ-58A will have limitations. The drones will not be quite as fast as most fighters, and they will have a range of 1,500 miles. Yet they will be able to carry a payload–perhaps GBU-39 bombs. The size of the drones, and the fact that pilots inside won’t suffer G-Forces, means they will be exceptionally maneuverable.

The “XQ-58A is 30 feet long with a 27-foot wingspan. It can carry a 600-lb. payload internally on its wings. The two GBU-39 bombs (250 lbs. each) would indeed be consistent with the stated 600 pound payload. The internal payload capability hints that the unmanned aircraft is designed to minimize its radar signature,” DM writes.

“The revelation that the Valkyrie drone is named XQ-58C ends speculation as to which mystery aircraft had received the X-58 designation. The Quiet Super Sonic Technology aircraft, also known as QueSST, was recently revealed with the designation X-59, prompting questions as to what unknown aviation project had been named X-58.”