Expanding the U.S. Military’s Fleet of Drones: Investing in ‘Attritable’ Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

For decades, the United States Military and Department of Defense (DOD) have been using drones to conduct surveillance, gather intelligence, and provide reconnaissance. As interest in their use continues to increase, so does their portion of the defense budget. Because of limits of the budget the DOD will have to make a choice between two potential paths. The first being to procure fewer, more expensive drones that have a higher level of capability. Examples include drones such as the Global Hawk and Reaper, which are currently in use by the United States Air Force and Border Patrol. The second option is to purchase less expensive drones that are smaller with more specified capabilities per platform.

The continued increase in unit cost per aircraft has led to a decrease in the size of the U.S. fleet and has forced the U.S. military to focus on an “attritable” design with an emphasis on lower cost drones that can be used multiple times and require a minimal amount of maintenance. “For military purposes, ‘attritable’ is defined as a design trait that trades reliability and maintenance for low-cost, reusable and eventually expendable weapon.” In an effort to explore the potential of “attritable” UAV designs and break the cycle of ever-increasing unit cost of aircraft, the U.S. Air Force has created the Lab’s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) initiative.

One of the first unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to arise from this shift is the XQ-58 Valkyrie. The Air Force Research Laboratory partnered with Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio to design and develop the UAV in around 2.5 years. In early March, the Valkyrie completed is first flight lasting 76 minutes. A total of 5 test flights have been planned during which a number of criteria will be evaluated, including launch and recovery, and aerodynamic performance. The Valkyrie is designed for reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance and long-range strike missions. Kratos has stated that it can reach high subsonic speeds and the unit cost will be $2 million dollars if purchased in bulk (100 or more). It is projected that three aircraft will be complete by the end of the year.

Another UAV that is under development at the Air Force Research Laboratory is the Skyborg. Researchers intend to have the aircraft combat ready by the close of 2023. The Skyborg is intended to be far less expensive than other available UAVs and easy to replace. While researchers have stated that the oblong aircraft will be able to navigate hazardous terrain, weather and obstacles, there is very little certainty as to how advanced the onboard artificial intelligence (AI) will be.

While low unit cost is a driving factor in the push towards “attritable” aircraft, fleet diversity is also a favorable outcome. It is hard to determine exactly what the mix of unmanned (UAV) and manned aircraft will look like in the future, but the ever-changing operational environment and continuing push for power, as well as budgetary limitations will ultimately shape these decisions. Drones could potentially play a roll similar to that of a quarterback, while working side-by-side a manned aircraft, they could serve as decoys, or smaller drones could be used in swarms. As UAV capabilities continue to increase, the future could see a shift of the use of drones for more than surveillance and intelligence. The application of UAVs in the U.S. Military’s arsenal is simply limitless.

One thing is certain, the use of UAVs by the U.S. Military and the DOD has barely scratched the surface. As technology continues to advance, so does the potential for the use of drones. Due to budget constraints and the skyrocketing unit cost of traditional tactical aircraft, it is safe to assume that the U.S. Military will continue to pursue the development of lower cost UAVs that will build diversity of their aircraft inventory.

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Leopold, G. Air Force Tests ‘Attritable’ Weapons [Online]. Available at: https://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1334456. (Accessed: 12 June 2019)
Morris, Z. US Drones Smaller, Less Capable Drones for the Near Future [Online]. Available at: https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/English-Edition-Archives/May-June-2018/US-Drones-Smaller-Less-Capable-Drones-for-the-Near-Future/. (Accessed: 12 June 2019)