AI Takes Flight: US Air Force Tests Combat Drones for Affordable Mass

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AI Takes Flight: US Air Force Testing Combat Drones for Affordable Mass

The United States Air Force is pushing the boundaries of military aviation by testing whether artificial intelligence (AI) can effectively fly combat aircraft. In a ground-breaking collaboration between the Air Force Research Lab and defense contractor Kratos, an experimental airplane codenamed Valkyrie, the XQ-58, is being put to the test.

The XQ-58 is not your typical aircraft—it is an AI-powered drone designed to assist manned aircraft in combat. While the Valkyrie does not have a pilot onboard, it is equipped with missiles, bombs, and data-gathering sensors. Its primary purpose is to undertake high-risk tasks, like eliminating heavily defended air sites located deep within enemy territory.

The concept behind the XQ-58 program is to create a swarm of collaborative combat aircraft that would surround manned aircraft such as the F-35 or F-22. However, it is important to note that the Valkyrie drones would not engage in combat independently; they would be controlled by a nearby pilot.

One of the main drivers behind this revolutionary approach is the escalating costs of fighter jets. The Air Force’s go-to fighter, the F-35 Lightning II, comes with a price tag of $80 million per unit, while the F-22 Raptor, the force’s premier air superiority fighter, costs an astounding $143 million each. Consequently, the Air Force has been forced to reduce the size of its fighter jet fleet to cope with financial constraints.

Enter the drones. Compared to traditional fighter jets, drone aircraft can be significantly cheaper to build. Disposable drones, for example, can cost as little as $3 million each, while more advanced models like the XQ-58 may reach a price point of $25 million. These lower costs would allow the Air Force to achieve affordable mass—a term used to describe the ability to deploy a large number of aircraft for a fraction of the cost.

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In a recent test flight, the XQ-58 had the opportunity to fly alongside an F-15 piloted by Major Ross Eldor. The Major expressed reservations about the program, saying, It’s a very strange feeling…I’m flying off the wing of something that’s making its own decisions. And it’s not a human brain. This sentiment raises the crucial question of whether AI can effectively replicate the skills and decision-making abilities of an experienced pilot.

To explore this possibility, the Air Force Research Laboratory has invested millions of dollars in developing airframes and algorithms for autonomous flight, including the Valkyrie, the MQ-20 Avenger, the UTAP-22 MAKO, and the VISTA X-62.

The Valkyrie is the latest addition to this roster of collaborative combat aircraft being tested. Just last month, the Air Force Research Lab announced the successful completion of a three-hour training flight, during which the Valkyrie’s AI and machine learning-powered systems showcased their capabilities.

According to Col. Tucker Hamilton, DAF AI Test and Operations Chief, the mission exemplified a multi-layer safety framework on an AI/ML-flown uncrewed aircraft and demonstrated an AI/ML agent successfully overcoming a tactical challenge. This important milestone paves the way for the development of AI/ML agents capable of executing modern air-to-air and air-to-surface skills that can be applied to other autonomous programs.

As the United States Air Force explores the potential of AI in combat aircraft, the future of military aviation hangs in the balance. While affordability is a key advantage, the ability of AI-powered drones to perform effectively and safely alongside human pilots remains a critical factor to be thoroughly assessed. Only time will reveal whether this collaboration between humans and machines will redefine the nature of air combat warfare.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) Related to the Above News

What is the XQ-58?

The XQ-58 is an AI-powered drone developed by the United States Air Force and defense contractor Kratos. It is designed to assist manned aircraft in combat and undertake high-risk tasks.

What is the purpose of the XQ-58 program?

The purpose of the XQ-58 program is to create a swarm of collaborative combat aircraft that would surround manned aircraft such as the F-35 or F-22. The drones would be controlled by a nearby pilot and would not engage in combat independently.

What is the advantage of using AI-powered drones in combat?

One of the main advantages of using AI-powered drones is their affordability. Compared to traditional fighter jets, drone aircraft can be significantly cheaper to build. This would allow the Air Force to achieve affordable mass deployment of a large number of aircraft for a fraction of the cost.

How much do drone aircraft cost compared to traditional fighter jets?

Disposable drones, for example, can cost as little as $3 million each, while more advanced models like the XQ-58 may reach a price point of $25 million. In comparison, the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet costs $80 million per unit and the F-22 Raptor costs $143 million each.

Can AI effectively replicate the skills and decision-making abilities of an experienced pilot?

This question remains a crucial point of consideration. While AI has shown promising capabilities in autonomous flight and tactical challenges, the ability to fully replicate the skills and decision-making abilities of a human pilot is yet to be determined.

What other autonomous combat aircraft are being developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory?

The Air Force Research Laboratory is developing other autonomous combat aircraft such as the MQ-20 Avenger, the UTAP-22 MAKO, and the VISTA X-62 in addition to the Valkyrie. These aircraft are being tested to explore the potential of AI and machine learning in military aviation.

How has the XQ-58 performed in recent tests?

In a recent three-hour training flight, the XQ-58 successfully showcased its AI and machine learning-powered systems. This milestone demonstrated the potential of AI/ML agents to execute modern air-to-air and air-to-surface skills, paving the way for further development in autonomous programs.

What are the main considerations for the future of AI-powered drones in military aviation?

The affordability of AI-powered drones is a key advantage, but their ability to effectively and safely perform alongside human pilots remains a critical factor that needs to be thoroughly assessed. The future of military aviation will depend on the successful collaboration between humans and machines in combat warfare.

Please note that the FAQs provided on this page are based on the news article published. While we strive to provide accurate and up-to-date information, it is always recommended to consult relevant authorities or professionals before making any decisions or taking action based on the FAQs or the news article.

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