USAF Announces ‘Skyborg,’ Fighting Drones That Could Replace Older F-16 Jets

“Skyborg” is coming to the combat airspace of the future.

The Air Force is planning a 2023 debut for the new, unmanned aircraft system that for now has been dubbed “Skyborg,” according to Aviation Week.

But don’t look to see squadrons of the drones even after the Air Force completes its planned replacements of older model F-16s. Instead, it will augment existing squadrons.

Nothing like Skyborg exists in the current array of Air Force weapons. The service calls it an attritable weapon, Aviation Week reported, which means that it which means that it “blurs the line” between a re-usable unmanned craft and a single-use cruise missile.

“Even though we call Skyborg an attritable aircraft, I think we’ll think of them more like reusable weapons,” said Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, according to Aviation Week.

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“We’ll do whatever number of takeoffs and landings they’re ‘spec’d’ for, and then we’ll attrit them out of the force as targets and just buy them at a steady rate,” Roper said.

Conceptually, the Air Force is planning to fly Skyborgs along with F-22s.

“I expect that the pilots, depending on the mission, [will] decide: Does the Skyborg return and land with them and then go to fight another day, or is it the end of its life and it’s going to go on a one-way mission?” Roper said.

Roper said uses for the Skyborg are still being developed.

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“I don’t think it’ll just be fighters,” he said. “I think they’ll fly with bombers. I think they’ll fly with tankers to provide extra defensive capability. That’s what I love about their versatility and the fact that we can take risks with them.”

Skyborg can be controlled from a companion aircraft, or independently, and does not need traditional runways and bases.

In its reporting on the new weapon, Popular Mechanics explained how it works.

“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,” it reported

That makes Skyborg hard to destroy.

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“If [China and Russia] know that they have to target only tens or even hundreds of ports and airfields, we have simplified their problem,”  Air Combat Command Gen. Mike Holmes said. With weapons such as Skyborg “we can still provide relevant high-tempo combat power to be freed up from a runway.”

A few prototypes exist. One in known as the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie.

The individual cost of the aircraft hasn’t been determined, but in a May report, Popular Mechanics noted that “Skyborg drones will be much cheaper than piloted aircraft, allowing the Air Force to grow its fleet at a lower cost.”

Roper told Aviation Week that Skyborg represents not just a new weapon, but a new philosophy.

“The whole idea was [that] the contested environment is going to be challenging, it’s going to be uncertain, and so it makes the most sense to have something that doesn’t have a pilot in it to go into the battlefield first,” he said.

“But once you agree that’s a self-evident operational concept, it opens up the door for a lot of nontraditional thinking for the Air Force.”

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