New US stealth drones are causing China concern

The conclusions of Chinese experts come with several major caveats. Their analysis relies entirely on open-source information and “reverse-engineering softwᴀʀe.” 

Chinese engineers say they have identified critical weaknesses in an upcoming state-of-the-art U.S. stealth combat drone.

A paper published in the Chinese peer-reviewed journal Aircraft Design gave an in-depth evaluation of the XQ-58A Valkyrie unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) that is being developed by Kratos Defense & Security Solutions. As first reported by the South China Morning Post, the paper was unimpressed by the drone’s aerodynamic performance, noting that the Valkyrie can withstand a pull of “only” 1.7 that of gravity. This is a major liability in typical dogfighting scenarios because, according to the South China Morning Post’s summary of the report, “most fighter jets need to brake against a force seven times that of gravity or higher.”

US Air Force Releases Video of New Combat Drone: XQ-58A Valkyrie:

A separate study conducted by China’s National University of Defence Technology reached a similar conclusion. “Under the premise of effective detection, the XQ-58A’s weaker maneuverability can lead to its destruction by ground-based mid-range anti-air guns, air-based over-the-horizon missiles or close combat by fighter jets,” noted Professor Guo Zheng and colleagues. Guo said that the drone is vulnerable to electronic countermeasures (ECM) tools that could sever the link between the Valkyrie and its human operators, or disable it outright with a “powerful electromagnetic pulse weapon.”

The conclusions of Chinese experts come with several major caveats. Their analysis relies entirely on open-source information and “reverse-engineering softwᴀʀe,” however, the  XQ-58A is still under development and could undergo any number of specifications changes prior to entering serial production. More fundamentally, the analysis in these two papers appears to try to box the Valkyrie into a role it is not designed for. The XQ-58A is not a dogfighting drone. It is, instead, a loyal wingman UCAV meant to support and escort the F-35 and F-22 fifth-generation fighter jets. The Valkyrie’s mission parameters involve long-range scouting, reconnaissance, surveillance, and strikes against ground targets with its 250-kilogram onboard payload of Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) spread across eight hardpoints. The Valkyrie need not be fast or maneuverable to accomplish these goals.

In keeping with U.S. Air Force requirements, the Valkyrie must be broadly autonomous. Even if, as speculated by the Chinese researchers, a hypothetical ECM attack were to sever communications between the Valkyrie and its human operators, the drone would still be guided by its onboard sensors and algorithms to execute battlefield tasks. The newspaper added that, although the Valkyrie is being advertised as a low-cost reusable drone, it is in effect intended to carry out “suicide” missions. While it is not primarily or exclusively designed to go on suicide sorties, there is no doubt that the Valkyrie’s expendability will factor into its use case; the fact that it is both unmanned and cheap makes it an obvious candidate for absorbing enemy fire or running high-risk strike missions deep in enemy airspace.

Despite its pointed criticisms, the Chinese research paper avers that the XQ-58A’s networking capabilities could make it a mainstay of US airpower. “Through the inversion of the XQ-58A design process, it can be seen that with the continuous breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and network data transmission technology, the ‘loyal wingman’ represented by XQ-58A will gradually become the main force on the battlefield and become a new leading power in the transformation of the man-machine coordinated combat model,” according to the research paper.

The Valkyrie completed its sixth flight test earlier in 2021. The project for which the XQ-58A is being developed, Skyborg, is slated to become a program of record in 2023.

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