Skyborg Prototype Tops Air Force $3.2B Unfunded Priority List; 12 F-35s Too

Skyborg Prototype Tops Air Force $3.2B Unfunded Priority List; 12 F-35s Too

XQ-58A Valkyrie “loyal wingman” drone, built by Kratos for Air Force Research Lab

PENTAGON: Initiating development of a Skyborg AI-controlled drone prototype for rapid fielding in the Indo-Pacific tops the Air Force’s $3.5 billion unfunded priorities list for 2021.

The list also includes an additional 12 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, and funds to speed development of receivers that can carry the encrypted, anti-jam M-Code signal carried by new-model Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites.

The service wants Congress to give them an additional $25 million for the Skyborg effort, managed by Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio. The Skyborg “brain” would use artificial intelligence to pilot low-cost “attritable” drones that would provide data (such as telemetry, flight plans and weather) to a manned fighter leading a formation — a job that a wingman’s aircraft normally would do.

While AFRL hasn’t ruled out other possible drones as Skyborg’s ‘body,’ so far the Valkyrie, built by Kratos, is the only drone to have successfully flown with it.

Air Force acquisition head Will Roper told reporters here today that the reason the prototype funding wasn’t including in the official 2021 budget request was because Skyborg development can still continue under the current effort at AFRL even if the rapid prototyping work cannot go forward.

“So, when you know you can keep something going on existing money it’s harder to put it into a program of record,” he said with a sigh.

Nonetheless, Roper said, the Skyborg/Valkyrie is going to fly in the next “On-Ramp” exercise of the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) coming up on April 8. It will involve all the services, and bases across the country from Eglin AFB to White Sands Missile Range, he said. As Breaking D readers know, the plan is for the drone to carry carry the ABMS “gatewayONE,” a radio and antenna set built by Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Honeywell that translates the separate machine languages of the F-35 and F-22 fighters to allow them to communicate with a low probability of detection.

The unfunded priorities list, released to Congress this week and obtained by Breaking D, calls for a $1.172 billion plus-up to the 2021 budget request to buy 12 more F-35s — plus spares — and another $171 million for long-lead support items.

The list breaks down the Air Force’s unfunded weapons system investment wish list, totaling $1.876 billion, into four sections:

Advanced Technologies — $115 million. This include Skyborg; $35 million for prototyping of the “Golden Horde” autonomous guidance and control package integrated with a Small Diameter Bomb-1 to target enemy systems equipped with GPS; and $55 million for a classified “Emergency Technology Concept” related to space launch.

Advanced Weapon Systems — $228 million. This basked includes $52 million to accelerate the encrypted M-Code receiver for Global Position System (GPS) satellites; and $176 million for classified “Robust Offensive Cyber Operations.”

Aircraft Procurement — $1.343 billion; all for the F-35 buys; and

Range Upgrades — $116 million, including $74 million for cyber range training.

The list also includes $1.325 billion in military construction funds for infrastructure maintenance and modernization.

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