American Skyborg program is underway – combat drones will interact with fighters

WARSAW, (BM) – The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) has selected four out of 18 applicants in the Skyborg program, which is to result in the creation and introduction to the line before 2028 of combat drones capable of interoperating with manned combat aircraft as part of Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T), learned citing Defence24.

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The selected companies are: Boeing (among its achievements in the field of UAVs is the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker program and general participation in the already advanced Australian Loyal Wingman program), General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (the creator of UAVs from the Predator family, among others), Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems (compared to other competitors, a relatively small company that until recently specialized in the creation of flying targets, but now has a flying demonstrator of the XQ-58 Valkyrie technology, which has already been largely tested) and Northrop Grumman, who has X-47B program.

Among the winners, one of the giants was not Lockheed Martin (the creators of the RQ-170 Sentinel), which may be related to the problems that this company still has with the production of F-35 fighters.

It includes that the company cannot keep up with the production of a sufficient quantity of spare parts of satisfactory quality. The government may therefore want to ease the “troubled” manufacturer with too many orders, especially since the F-35 program has not even reached the halfway point of production, and the fleet of these aircraft (and thus the demand for parts) is growing every year.

On the other hand, Washington has for some time been trying to diversify its orders among various entities, including promoting new ones, so that many aviation companies specializing in various types of products will appear on the US map again, which will create protection against the threat of a monopoly or rather a duopoly of two giants industry.

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The lack of Lockheed Martin is also important information from the Polish point of view. Since the spring of last year, the company has been holding talks on the Vistula River on the construction of an unmanned aerial vehicle with the participation of the Polish industry, which corresponds to the assumptions of Skyborg and Loyal Wiingman.

This little-known machine in the flying wing system is called NexGen and is to have a maximum take-off weight of 9 tons, the ability to carry about 500 kg of payload, the speed of Ma 0.6, range of 3700 km and flight duration up to 18 hours.

Lockheed Martin’s lack of participation in Skyborg means that if Poland decided to accept his proposal, then the Harpii Szpon would be a different machine than the American one, which seems pointless (low economy of scale, poor interoperability with the US Air Force).

Coming back to the winners, the choice for the next phase of the program does not mean automatic granting of funds, but it opens the way for them to order various types of equipment from the AFLCMC and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL, the cooperation of these two institutions is also a novelty) , which is to be translated in subsequent programs into the quick identification of new solutions and their efficient adaptation into functional equipment).

The upper financial ceiling for orders for this stage of Skyborg, which is to result in the creation of flying prototypes, has been set for all entities in total at USD 400 million.

Read more: General Atomics Has Been Awarded $90 Million Contract by the United Kingdom for MQ-9A Reaper

For this money, various, sometimes parallel solutions are to be ordered, from which the best will be selected. As a result, a machine connected in a uniform system with an open architecture is to be created, which will not only accompany the fighter, but will also adapt to the situation on its own, perform maneuvers and make instant decisions, also when carrying out complex missions.

Skyborg is one of the three “avant-garde” programs of the US Air Force selected as priorities at the end of 2019. They are to lead to a jump in the capacity of this formation. In addition to unmanned “companions” for fighters, there is also the “Golden Horde” program aimed at creating communication, cooperation, and thus group behavior of weapon systems (missiles), which will increase their effectiveness on the battlefield.

The third program is the program of the new NTS-3 navigation satellite, which will be remotely programmable in orbit and thus effectively avoid interference. Of course, this satellite will also have better technical parameters of sensors and transmitting and receiving devices than its predecessors.

Skyborg is to enable the creation of a cheap fleet (it seems that a maximum of USD 10 million per copy) and, consequently, numerous accompanying machines.

The USAF claims that this will make it possible to change the doctrine of its operation, which may be seen as the fact that the United States gained numerical superiority on the air battlefield. Currently, Americans theoretically have it too, but the forces are scattered all over the world and the number of aviation in the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation is expected to increase.

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Gaining an overwhelming numerical superiority in the air and with machines that can be sacrificed, contrary to the current doctrine of taking care of every aircraft (moral, political, financial costs), can actually change the way of conducting air battles of the future.


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