The F-22 and F-35 are two of the most cutting-edge and capable war machines in America’s arsenal. They also cost $143 million and $75 million a pop, respectively. Facing increasing pressure from China, which has accelerated its conventional weapon procurement efforts in recent months, the Pentagon announced Monday a program designed to build out America’s drone production base in response. As part of that effort, the United States Air Force has requested nearly $6 billion in federal funding over the next five years to construct a fleet of XQ-58A Valkyrie uncrewed aircraft, each of which will cost a (comparatively) paltry $3 million.
The Valkyrie comes from Kratos Defense & Security Solutions as part of the USAF’s Low Cost Attritable Strike Demonstrator (LCASD) program. The 30-foot uncrewed aircraft weighs 2,500 pounds unfueled and can carry up to 1,200 total pounds of ordinance. The XQ-58 is built as a stealthy escort aircraft to fly in support of F-22 and F-35 during combat missions, though the USAF sees the aircraft filling a variety of roles by tailoring its instruments and weapons to each mission. Those could includes surveillance and resupply actions, in addition to swarming enemy aircraft in active combat.
Earlier this month, Kratos successfully operated the XQ-58 during a three-hour demonstration at Elgin Air Force Base. “AACO [the Autonomous Air Combat Operations team] has taken a multi-pronged approach to uncrewed flight testing of machine learning Artificial Intelligence and has met operational experimentation objectives by using a combination of high-performance computing, modeling and simulation, and hardware in the loop testing to train an AI agent to safely fly the XQ-58 uncrewed aircraft,” Dr. Terry Wilson, AACO program manager, said in a press statement at the time.
“It’s a very strange feeling,” USAF test pilot Major Ross Elder told the New York Times. “I’m flying off the wing of something that’s making its own decisions. And it’s not a human brain.” The USAF has been quick to point out that the drones are to remain firmly under the command of human pilots and commanders.
The Air Force took heat in June when Colonel Tucker “Cinco” Hamilton “misspoke” at a press conference and suggested that an AI could potentially be induced to turn on its operator, though the DoD dismissed that possibility as a “hypothetical thought exercise” rather than “simulation.”
“Any Air Force drone [will be] designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force,” a Pentagon spokeswoman told the NYT. Congress will need to pass the DoD’s budget for the next fiscal year before construction efforts can begin. The XQ-58 program will require an initial outlay of $3.3 billion in 2024 if approved.