Next-gen AI drones to rule the sky as USAF prepares $5.8 billion bid

The US Air Force budgeted $5.8 billion for approval in Congress to build 1000-2000 highly advanced AI drones capable of autonomy, interoperability, and “lethality enhancement.” The next-gen jet drones are distinguished from others by their ability to act independently, without a human operator, including the decision to kill.

In January 2023, the U.S. Navy/Marine Corps announced the acquisition of two Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie drones for $15.5 million, or $7.75 million per unit.

Included in the announcement was that the drones should have “sensor and weapon system payloads to accomplish the penetrating affordable autonomous collaborative killer” mission.

Now, the Pentagon wants at least a thousand of these drones.

The Air Force seeks $5.82 billion over five years for the so-called Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, that builds on the foundation of previous programs for unmanned jet drones.

The large acquisitions show that the technology has reached maturity, as jet-powered killer drones have been on the Pentagon’s shopping list for since at least 2010.

With intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), and electronic warfare capabilities, such systems have been long in development, culminating in the Skyborg program.

Now, the concepts have materialized and a new breed of autonomous drones is born. The Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie is one of the main contenders and may have a head start, as it was initially developed in cooperation with other programs, preceding Skyborg. Other Skyborg airplanes are being developed by Boeing, General Atomics, and Northrop Grumman.

CCA’s should not be confused with smaller killer drones that are expected to be mass-produced and probably launched in hordes. CCA’s are meant for air superiority – loyal drone wingmen, sometimes even carrying their own drones, will accompany human pilots in their jets.

“Key CCA attributes include the tailored cost of platforms, mission integrated autonomy, multi-platform interoperability, and lethality enhancement,” according to an Air Force document.

Maturing large weapon systems will leverage relevant achievements in science and technology.

What is Skyborg?

Way back in 2016, the Air Force started the Low Cost Attritable Strike Demonstrator (LCASD) program for low-cost drone testing.

In 2019, that was followed by the special “Vanguard” program, the Skyborg, which focused on rapid prototyping and development of new technologies for autonomous aircraft architecture.

The term "Skyborg" seems to be a combination of "sky" and "cyborg," playing on the integration of machine and AI capabilities for aviation.

The goal of the program is to enable self-piloting aircrafts to carry out missions quickly and effectively, even in tough environments, with “unmatched combat capability per dollar,” according to the Air Force Research Lab.

This technology is supposed to work by providing military pilots with key information about their surroundings. An autonomous system should be capable of detecting air and ground threats, determining proximity, analyzing imminent danger, and identifying suitable options for striking or evading.

The system would have “the autonomy to make decisions based on established rules of engagement set by manned teammates,” which is enabled by complex algorithms and cutting-edge sensors.

“Skyborg will not replace human pilots. Instead, it will provide them with key data to support rapid, informed decisions. In this manner, Skyborg will provide manned teammates with greater situational awareness and survivability during combat missions,” the USAF Research Lab writes.

Autonomous systems such as Skyborg are expected to significantly increase capability and be a force multiplier for the USAF, to prepare for potential engagements with near-peer adversaries.

Multiple defense contractors have participated in the development of Skyborg, including Boeing, General Atomics, Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, and Northrop Grumman, with each company developing its own version. The autonomy foundation is supposed to be transferable to a family of layered, unmanned air vehicles.

For the price of an F-35, dozens of AI planes

The XQ-58A Valkyrie, produced by Kratos Defense & Security Solutions, is the one particular Skyborg drone that everybody’s talking about.

According to the New York Times, the XQ-58A Valkyrie is a potential contender for the Air Force CCA’s program. The plan is to build 1,000-2,000 new-generation AI drones, costing $3-$25 million each.

That could be a force multiplier, creating greater deterrence for China or other adversaries, as the current Air Force’s combat aircraft fleet, with a single fighter jet costing as much as $80 million per unit, is “the smallest and oldest fleet in its history.”

Relatively large, unmanned, weighing in at 6,000 pounds with a roughly 27-foot-wingspan, and having an unrefueled range in excess of 3,000 miles, Valkyries belong to a “Group 5” category of unmanned aerial systems, together with the propeller-driven MQ-9 Reaper, jet powered RQ-4 Global Hawk, and the MQ-4C Triton. What makes Valkyrie different are its AI capabilities.

An XQ-58 Valkyrie deploys an Altius-600 unmanned aircraft system.

Kratos XQ-58A Valkyries have been airborne since at least 2019. For several years, Valkyries have been tested for escorting the F-22 or F-35 during combat missions, deploying weapons or surveillance systems, and sharing information. Valkyries even have the capability to launch their own drones to counter enemy air defense missiles and protect higher-value targets.

Designed to work in conjunction with manned aircraft, this shows that the Air Force is “counting on autonomous weapon systems to provide an advantage against peer adversaries to the US,” according to the annual report by Kratos.

Later this year, the combat drone will be tested in a simulation where it will be asked to chase and then kill a simulated enemy target over the Gulf of Mexico. The Valkyrie will have to come up with its own strategy, the Times reported.

The Air Force budget is yet to be approved by Congress – most of the $5.8 billion purchases would be made in 2028.

Valkyries can be launched from anywhere

Kratos shifted its focus to strategic threats more than a decade ago. Since then, the company made a series of acquisitions in the drone, missile defense, electronic warfare, and training system areas, according to an interview with Eric Demarco, CEO of Kratos, in 2020.

Kratos has been flying and demonstrating the capabilities of various unmanned combat aerial systems (UCAS) since at least 2015, and its family includes “more than four different aircraft types,” including the Valkyrie and smaller Mako, Gremlins, and Tactical Firejets.

Combat drones, produced by Kratos, are derivatives of target drones. Kratos took existing “proven technologies” and combined them into more capable Airwolfs, Makos, Gremlins, or Valkyries and other undisclosed drones.

“We took proven target drones. We modified them to carry tactical payloads. The first one was the Mako. Then we had a second one that is still it's not public. That led to 2016, when the Low-cost Aerial Attritable Demonstrator program came out, we won that. Gremlins came out – we won that,” Demarco explained.

The company rightfully identified the market opportunity way before the Skyborg program came out.

“These are low cost aircraft are designed to be able to augment mannered aircraft, loyal wingmen if you will. In the ISR area (Intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance), the electronic warfare area, and the kinetic area. And what we’re doing, we’re addressing what we believe is a very large market area driven by just a handful of programs that have come out, the Skyborg program,” Demarco explained in 2020.

In July 2020, Kratos was awarded a five-year indefinite delivery indefinite quantity (“IDIQ”) contract valued at up to $400 million for the development, integration, and prototype air vehicle delivery in support of the Air Force’s Skyborg program.

The key differentiator for Kratos drones is that they are all launched from a rail, even the 30-foot-long Valkyrie. The rocket-assisted drone can be launched from anywhere, it fits a single shipping container and lands with a parachute. That makes the Valkyrie runway independent.

“Distributed lethality is a critical request of our customer set,” the CEO said. His estimates for one plane ranged between $3 million and $5 million at the time.

As technology advances and algorithms start deciding on the usage of lethal force, human rights advocates are concerned that the machines may lead to a “Terminator” style “Skynet” dominated dystopian future.

“You’re stepping over a moral line by outsourcing killing to machines – by allowing computer sensors rather than humans to take human life,” Mary Wareham, the advocacy director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch, pushing for international limits lethally autonomous weapons, told the Times.