While there’s no question the U.S. boasts the largest air force in the world in terms of total military aircraft, the makeup and size of that force has shifted dramatically since the final days of World War II. At that time, the U.S. boasted some 300,000 combat aircraft. Today, the nation has only around 13,400, spread out across its various military branches.
The reason for this change is the steady progress of technology, which has dramatically increased the combat capabilities and the cost of each aircraft in service today. These parallel developments in aviation production have resulted not only in a leaner, more capable Air Force, but a change in combat strategy altogether. Gone is the World War II mindset that called for superiority through volume. On today’s battlefield, it’s technology, not numbers, that makes the biggest difference.
But the capability gap offered by technology alone is difficult to maintain. As near-peer level opponents like China and Russia field more advanced air defense systems, America’s aircraft face the possibility of a more contested battle space than ever before. With American fighters costing upward of $80 million each, regardless of whether or not they possess stealth capabilities, each and every loss would be truly felt in a large-scale conflict. That’s why the strategic scales may be tipping back toward a force reliant on a high volume of aircraft, rather than the amount of tech that can be crammed into each one. And that’s where the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie could really shine.
The Valkyrie has an internal weapon payload capacity of at least two small-diameter bombs and boasts a flight range of more than 2,000 miles, but more importantly, the Department of Defense (DoD) has a plan to connect these unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) to F-35s and the new F-15EXs via encrypted data links to serve as support drones—an initiative known as the Skyborg program. These links, coupled with on-board artificial intelligence, will allow pilots of manned aircraft to control their drone wingmen, even sending them out ahead to relay sensor information back to the pilot.
That means the Valkyries would be able to engage ground targets on behalf of a manned fighter and potentially even sacrifice themselves to protect manned aircraft from inbound missiles.