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.
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.