Commercial Drones PilotsStealth UAV May Serve Cargo Role in Indo-Pacific

November 1, 2021by helo-10

A stealth unmanned aircraft under development as an inexpensive expendable tactical vehicle may find a use as a supply drone serving the vast Indo-Pacific region. Researchers at the U.S. Air Force’s Air University are exploring this alternative use for the XQ-58A Valkyrie, which is part of the service’s Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology program to develop expendable vehicles that can be deployed in high-risk environments.

Built by Kratos Security, the 30-foot-long Valkyrie can fly extreme ranges at high speeds with great maneuverability. And instead of lethal weapons in its bomb bay or sensors for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, the XQ-58A can carry and accurately deliver 600 pounds of cargo independent of a runway. The drone’s maximum range of 3,000 nautical miles would allow the Air Force to deliver, at a lower cost, crucial parts and supplies to far-flung locations, especially across the Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), reports Master Sgt. Conor‌  Gray, USAF, Faculty Development, Air Force Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy, Maxwell-Gunther Air Force Base, Alabama. 

“Our adversaries in this region have the industry might this time,” Sgt. Gray  says. “We are in their backyard, and they have the advantage there, not us. They don’t have the tyranny of distance like we do. We have serious problems on our hands when it comes to logistics.”  

The Valkyrie designated for logistics could be a key component of the Air Force’s pursuit of agile combat employment, or ACE, Sgt.  Gray  emphasizes. “When we talk about agile combat employment, they are the agile bases that are ‘invisible’ and keep moving around,” he states. “But if you can’t deliver those small logistical things, ACE is just not going to work very well.” 

Sgt.  Gray  is part of an eight-member team of Air Force officials called Pacific Prime—which also includes Chief Master Sgt. Adam Stugard, Lt. Col. David Brewer, Capt. Daniel Alexander, Capt. Molly Locke and Capt. Joshua Pyne, along with coaches Lt. Col. Zachary Gray and Maj. Matthew Welch. They examined the application of the Valkyrie for logistics delivery in a contested environment as part of the Project Mercury Innovators Forum, a partnership between Air University and the University of Michigan. Sgt. Gray presented the group’s findings during an MGMWERX/Air University Research Showcase this past summer. The team was recognized with the best project award and Sgt. Gray received an individual MVP researcher award. Since the awards, the group has been speaking with leaders at the U.S. Transportation Command, or TRANSCOM, the Pacific Air Forces and other organizations to discuss the possibilities of the Valkyrie logistics solution. 

“What we are saying is that we need to take this same aircraft and start putting logistics requirements on it,” he explains. “It’s attritable. That’s another big part of the solution. An attritable asset is something that is so cheap and can be made so quickly. You can have about 500 of these. They are runway independent, and a couple of different models can land on an aircraft carrier or land in the water. They have a way to adapt it to a traditional runway landing as well. It’s autonomous, so no pilot is necessary. Also, no remote pilot. The engine is a normal small business class Pratt and Whitney engine. It can be produced quickly, fast and cheap. In INDOPACOM, you can put in Taiwan. You can put in the Philippines, Singapore or in Okinawa, Japan or South Korea.” 

“Given the increased standoff distances the U.S. must have from its current adversaries, it’s important to recognize the enduring need for and propose systems which can supply and support the forward force,” adds Col. Brewer. “For instance, the execution to set up forward bases contained in ACE constructs requires an effective plan to deliver time-critical parts and supplies in contested environments. The days of using C-17s to deliver pallets of operational equipment are gone. The freedom of movements and air superiority we enjoyed in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be realistic in a near-peer fight. Pacific Prime’s concept is one such proposal, showing the effective use of unmanned and increasingly autonomous systems to mitigate the risk to the warfighter in the contested environment while making good on the requirement to deliver supplies and support them.” 

In addition to ACE, the team found that the drone delivery platform could be applied at scale to the Defense Department’s logistics enterprise, and more specifically, to the mission impaired capability awaiting parts, or MICAP, program.  

“Say there is a C-17, a C-130 or an aircraft carrier that is downrange and broken,” the master sergeant notes. “It cannot complete the mission that it was built to do, and the asset is sitting there waiting until we get an O-ring, or waiting to get a special wrench, a piece of test equipment, something to get it back in the air and back into the fight. That is what we’re talking about with MICAP. We’re highlighting that very specific market.” 

As part of the research effort, teammate Capt. Locke spoke with members of the Air Force’s logistics innovation center, Tesseract, to get their input on possible logistical problems. “Working so closely with Tesseract and the individual project managers was instrumental in our success,” she reports. “They had the data and the lessons learned available to help us understand the current ecosystem’s limitations and where repurposing this new drone technology could help alleviate the pain points they had previously found.”

Tesseract had launched the MICAP Prime project to get parts to locations faster, with initial success, but ran into scaling challenges, Sgt. Gray notes. 

“A lot of times it’s the little things,” he offers. “It’s the logistician that goes and gets his hair cut instead of taking the part off the shelf. So, to improve the logistics process, they had the airmen pay greater attention. And if you make it a priority, suddenly you are about 20 percent better in some cases. That is the kind of thing they were looking at. But they found that when they scaled up, they did not reach additional gains. So, we asked, ‘How often do you have a MICAP that is small,’ with mass weight right under 1,200 pounds? Their answer was, ‘Between 95 percent and 98 percent of the time.’” 

Realizing that most duty assets are requiring a part, tool or test equipment that weighs under 1,200 pounds was a key factor in indicating the XQ-58A solution, the master sergeant notes. “Every so often, yes, it is an engine,” he states. “It is something big. Our solution is not going after that. With our work, we are focusing on that 95 to 98 percent of needed equipment, those small things.”  

In addition, the researchers found that about 97 percent of logistics is performed in coordination with commercial assets. “It doesn’t make sense to put these one or two items on a C-17 and fly it,” Sgt. Gray stipulates. “You have to fill up the plane in order to justify the cost requirements, so what ends up happening is that they turn it over to the commercial market.” 

However, that kind of solution would not work in a contested, near-peer environment, he stresses. Commercial companies would not necessarily risk operating in such challenging or far-flung locations. 

“In this contested environment, we are facing long, long distances, and we are dealing with things that we need to get delivered quickly,” Sgt. Gray continues. “We have to contend with the possibility that our traditional assets could be shot down or disabled in some manner in this contested environment. And when you look a little bit deeper into our aging fleet, when it comes to our airlift, and our aircraft carriers are in the same circumstance as our transports, our Navy, all of our traditional gray tail, aging assets are kind of in the same place where maintenance costs are going up; logistics costs are going up.” 

In addition, Air Force logistics can be delayed by batching—and the Valkyrie could be just the answer to batching delays, Sgt. Gray notes. “We determined that there’s a lot of batching,” he states. “What batching means is that you are waiting until something is full before you send it. And the problem with batching is a lot of time that you are waiting, other people are waiting too.”

Moreover, the use of the XQ-58A for logistics and supplies would augment, not replace, the Air Force’s more exquisite, expensive assets such as the C-17, he stresses. The C-17s and other cargo aircraft would still be needed to deliver large volumes of things. The versatility of the drone, however, would help lighten the burden of planners and leaders and allow them to use the traditional assets more deliberately. 

“What’s cool about the Valkyrie is that it has such long range. You just fire and forget it.” 

Additionally, the drone’s “attritable” nature makes it more easily replaced. “When you use exquisite assets, they’re very hard to replace,” he says. “They are very expensive when they are shot down. Are we going to win a war of attrition in their backyard with exquisite assets?”  

Nonetheless, the concept is getting some initial pushback from leaders who are pilots and are reticent to cut pilot time despite the clear benefits offered by the delivery drone.  

“We had a meeting recently with three generals who were captivated,” Sgt. Gray clarifies. “Brig. Gen. [Laura] Lenderman [USAF] asked, ‘Why isn’t this being done already? This is hot stuff.’ But it really just comes down to culture. Our top [Air Force] leadership, they are mostly pilots. They are very good at leadership, and just about in any other way, but with this particular topic, they hesitate.” 

Other leaders cite different solutions, such as the smaller, swarming delivery drones that the Marines are examining, or the quadcopters that Agility Prime and AFWERX are developing. However, those are all meant for much smaller distances. “[Urban Air Mobility or eVOTL] nonfixed-wing aircraft, they can do what we’re trying to do, but maybe for 20 miles out. We are trying to go 3,000 miles,” he adds.  

Even additive manufacturing is not quite the answer for contested logistics. “The Marines have some of the best stories ever about additive manufacturing,” Sgt. Gray says. “They are just killing it with printing things downrange, but those 3D printers, although they are advancing further and further, they still need the raw material. You still need to deliver the material to where it gets printed.” 

The possibilities that drone delivery offers are being considered by commercial companies such as De Beers and DASH Systems, the master sergeant shares. Diamond supplier and jeweler De Beers reportedly liked the range and speed of the Valkyrie for their lighter, albeit valuable loads, he says, especially as an alternative to transporting diamonds via ships and having to defend against pirates. DASH Systems is looking to innovate freight delivery with promises of delivery to anywhere in the world in one day using unmanned aircraft and precision-guided air drops. 

As long as a drone can fly over a location, it could deliver to the most remote parts of the world. “Can you imagine a stealth drone like Valkyrie, 500 of them flying 3,000 nautical miles away, dropping things anywhere we want?” Sgt. Gray  asks.  

Pacific Prime’s solution is a viable answer, Lt. Col. Brewer emphasizes. “Granted, ‘the devil is always in the details’, but this solution is certainly within the realm of the possible. ‘Innovation’ is certainly a term used for effect in meetings but in actuality, innovation is stifled due to the weight of bureaucracy with acquisitions, contracting, regulations, technology development and the ‘frozen middle.’ What makes our innovation concept viable for operational employment is the fact we are using existing and funded systems, albeit in a modified way, to expand the scope for the XQ-58 Valkyrie to become a logistics assets as well as a weapon system. Our Pacific Prime concept might need adjustment or further maturity to exercise or implement operationally, but this solution provides a great baseline from which to grow.” 

Capt. Locke suggests that this outside-the-box thinking is necessary for the service going forward. “If you keep doing the same thing, you’ll keep getting the same result. Innovation is a current buzzword for a reason,” Capt. Locke says. “If we want to remain the greatest Air Force in the world, we have a short window of time to make the changes necessary to stay relevant on the world stage. Technology has advanced so quickly and our current processes and way of life are not fully compatible. True innovation and its precursors are a requirement for our future success.” 

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