Somehow, Skyborg will be an operational weapon system in just three years.
The U.S. Air Force is planning to field an operational combat drone by 2023.
The service says Skyborg will replace older weapon-slinging drones and even early models of the F-16.
Skyborg will be reusable but could be sacrificed in combat if necessary.
The U.S. Air Force plans to have an operational combat drone by 2023. The service plans to build out a family of unmanned aircraft, known as Skyborg, capable of carrying weapons and actively participating in combat. The Air Force’s goal is to build up a large fleet of armed, sort-of disposable jets that don’t need conventional runways to take off and land.
The Air Force, according to Aviation Week & Space Technology, expects to have the first operational Skyborg aircraft ready by 2023. Skyborg will be available with both subsonic and supersonic engines, indicating both attack and fighter jet versions. The basic design (or designs) will likely be stealthy, carrying guided bombs, air defense suppression missiles, and air-to-air missiles inside internal weapons bays. Interesting, according to AvWeek, the Air Force is considering Skyborg as a replacement not only for the MQ-9 Reaper attack drone but early versions of the F-16 manned fighter.
Here’s a video produced by Boeing of their Loyal Wingman UAV, which is expected to join the Skyborg competition.
Skyborg was originally described as an artificial intelligence capable of being fielded two ways. The first would be as the software equivalent of R2D2 in the rear of an X-Wing fighter, a flying copilot designed to assist the human pilot by taking on minor, but still important tasks. This would free up a human fighter to concentrate on flying the jet fighting the enemy.
Skyborg AI was also supposed to act as the brain for the Air Force’s first combat drones, drones that could fly alongside fighter jets and act as a “loyal wingman” to a crewed fighter. Such a jet could act as the bait in an ambush, carry extra weapons, or perform any number of roles. Skyborgs could also fly high risk combat missions, such as hunting enemy air defense systems and attacking heavily defended ground targets, without risking a human pilot. Other missions might include escorting unarmed aircraft such as tankers, transports, and AWACs planes, and aerial reconnaissance. Of the two Skyborg concepts, the AI-powered drone seems to have priority right now.
Skyborg is designed to be an “attritable” airplane designed to fly a mere handful of miles compared to fully loaded jets like the F-35A. This keeps costs down, allowing the Air Force to buy large numbers of the plane. Keeping Skyborg cheap also makes the jets expendable under certain circumstances. A Skyborg pilot might fly a mission against ground targets and expend all of the drone’s weapons–only to see a ballistic missile launcher armed with chemical warheads lumber out of a tree line below. Rather than wait for armed reinforcements to arrive on the scene the pilot would have the option of using his drone as a kamikaze weapon to destroy the launcher.
Here’s another candidate for Skyborg, the Kratos Defense XQ-58 Valkyrie.
In another example, a Skyborg jet is acting as an armed escort for an E-3 AWACS airborne early warning and control plane. Unmanned, a Skyborg could take many more risks than a manned aircraft, including acting as a decoy to divert enemy missiles away from the AWACS and its fifteen person crew. Meanwhile, the manned jets that might have performed the escort mission are free to go on and fly other missions more suitable for crewed aircraft.
Another major feature of Skyborg will be the ability to operate independently of traditional air bases. Air base runways are typically two miles long or longer and are vulnerable to enemy attack. Skyborg will likely be launched from rails, lofted into the air by small booster rockets. Once airborne the drone’s turbine engine would kick in, allowing for powered flight. Its mission complete, a Skyborg drone would fly to a designated area, cut its engine, pop a parachute and float to the ground. Air Force teams would recover the drones and prepare them for the next mission.
Skyborg first went public in 2019 but the Air Force believes it can have operational jets by 2023. Such a short development schedule was common in the 1950s but unheard of by today’s standards. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, on the other hand, took two decades to go from the drawing board to the runway, during which time the strategic environment changed dramatically. By the time the F-35 was fielded in large numbers some decisions, such as the jet’s relatively short range, went from being acceptable trade offs to definite shortcomings. A shorter development time means the Air Force could quickly develop new drones capable of addressing new threats and strategic realities.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has grown into a good fighter plane but it took two decades to develop and cost $90 million each.
Unmanned jets like Skyborg promise to remake the U.S. Air Force and other air forces. Manned aircraft have become increasingly large, difficult to develop, and expensive. This in turn means the Pentagon can afford fewer jets, ultimately leading to a smaller Air Force. Unmanned jets, on the other hand, are smaller, easier to develop, and cheap–allowing the Air Force to buy lots of them.
There’s a lot to like about Skyborg. The drone will grow the fighting arm of the U.S. Air Force, move air power away from air fields, fly alongside fighter jets, and escort traditionally undefended assets like the E-3 Sentry. And it promises to do it all affordably. If the Air Force really can get Skyborg into the game by 2023 it will dramatically change the shape of aerial warfare.