The US Air Force says the Valkyrie drone launched another drone in a first for the aircraft

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrates the separation of the ALTIUS-600 small UAS in a test at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground test range, Arizona on March 26, 2021
The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrates separation of the ALTIUS-600 small UAS in a test at the US Army Yuma Proving Ground test range in Arizona, March 26, 2021

  • The Air Force Research Laboratory conducted its sixth test of the Valkyrie drone in late March.
  • During the test, the drone launched a smaller drone from its internal weapons bay.
  • The Air Force is looking at Valkyrie as an autonomous UAV that could support manned aircraft.
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A Valkyrie drone launched another drone during a recent flight test, the Air Force Research Laboratory announced Monday.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie is a long-range unmanned aerial vehicle capable of high subsonic speeds. It was built by Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) program and first flew on March 5, 2019.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, a long-range, high subsonic unmanned air vehicle completed its inaugural flight March 5, 2019 at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona
The XQ-58A demonstrator completed its inaugural flight at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona on March 5, 2019.

During its sixth flight test on March 26, 2021, the aircraft conducted its first payload release from its internal weapons bay, launching an Area-I ALTIUS-600 small unmanned aircraft system.

The Air Force is looking at relatively inexpensive, expendable drones like the Valkyrie as potential artificial-intelligence-driven autonomous platforms that could fly alongside and support manned fighter aircraft. This is the major focus of the Skyborg program.

The Air Force’s Skyborg project, for which Kratos, Boeing, and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems are developing prototypes, is about fielding autonomous unmanned systems that will “enable the Air Force to operate and sustain low-cost, teamed aircraft that can thwart adversaries with quick, decisive actions in contested environments,” the service says.

The smaller, tube-launched autonomous ALTIUS-600 drones provide additional support in the form of intelligence gathering and reconnaissance, counter-drone, electronic-warfare, and strike capabilities.

An XQ-58A Valkyrie low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle launches at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., Dec. 9, 2020
An XQ-58A launches at the US Army Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, December 9, 2020.

The recent Valkyrie test was not only the first time the payload doors have been opened in flight, Alyson Turri, the demonstration program manager, said in a statement, but this time the XQ-58A drone also flew higher and faster than it has in previous tests.

The recent test followed the Valkyrie drone’s fifth flight test in December, which involved the aircraft flying alongside Air Force F-22 and F-35A fighters and a Marine Corps F-35B.

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor and F-35A Lightning II fly in formation with the XQ-58A Valkyrie low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle over the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground testing range, Ariz., during a series of tests Dec. 9, 2020
An F-22 and F-35A with an XQ-58A over the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona during tests, December 9, 2020.

The rocket-launched Valkyrie drone conducted a semi-autonomous flight while carrying a gatewayONE payload built to allow the different fifth-generation aircraft to communicate, though the communication tool lost connectivity shortly after the aircraft took off.

Despite the connectivity problem during the testing in December, the Air Force was able to overcome the digital security barriers to allow the F-22’s Intra-Flight Data Link and F-35’s Multifunctional Advanced Data Link to communicate and transmit data, demonstrating some of the possibilities for this technology.

The Air Force Research Laboratory said that the most recent Valkyrie drone test, which like past tests was conducted at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona and supported by Kratos and Area-I, “further demonstrates the utility of affordable, high performance unmanned air vehicles.”

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The US Navy’s giving a stealth Zumwalt destroyer control of drone ships and aircraft for a future naval combat experiment

USS Michael Monsoor
USS Michael Monsoor

  • A Zumwalt-class destroyer will command manned and unmanned assets in an exercise next month.
  • The unmanned assets will include UAVs like the MQ-9 and Fire Scout, as well as surface vessels.
  • The Navy will use the Fleet Battle Problem exercise to explore possibilities for the future force.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US Navy will give one of its advanced Zumwalt-class destroyers control of multiple unmanned systems during an upcoming exercise exploring possibilities for future naval warfare.

During next month’s Fleet Battle Problem exercise in the Pacific, the USS Michael Monsoor (DDG-1001) will command both unmanned surface vessels and aircraft as the Navy looks at which elements of a potential future force “will have the greatest impact on increasing the fleet’s lethality,” a Navy official said in a statement first reported by USNI News.

Navy spokesman Lt. Col. Tim Pietrack, citing the demands of the Unmanned Campaign Framework, said that “it is imperative that we understand what our future force will need to operate both in day-to-day competition as well as high-end combat.”

The exercise, which will take place in the 3rd Fleet area of responsibility under the supervision of US Pacific Fleet, “will incorporate many unmanned capabilities and unmanned capability enablers,” Pietrack said.

He said that during the exercise, the Michael Monsoor “will use the ship’s unique capabilities to command and control manned and unmanned forces to conduct long-range, multi-domain fires.”

The unmanned assets expected to participate in the complex exercise include the unmanned surface vessels Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk and the MQ-8B Fire Scout and MQ-9 Sea Guardian unmanned aerial vehicles.

Sea Hunter, an entirely new class of unmanned sea surface vehicle developed in partnership between the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
Sea Hunter, an entirely new class of unmanned sea surface vehicle developed in partnership between the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)

The MQ-9 Sea Guardian drone serves as a scout aircraft, as well as an anti-submarine warfare asset, while the Fire Scout, an unmanned helicopter that will operate from a Littoral Combat Ship during the exercise, can conduct both reconnaissance and strike missions.

During next month’s exercise, the Sea Hunter, which has participated in past exercises, and the newer Sea Hawk will support manned units in an anti-submarine role while also providing maritime domain awareness.

Pietrack said that “through operational scenarios, what we learn from this event will provide pertinent and timely input to the Naval Research Enterprise and the acquisition community to better inform unmanned system development moving forward.”

The Navy has shown increasing interest in unmanned systems, which are expected to be a critical part of the future fleet.

Looking at the competition with China, which has the world’s largest naval force, the Pentagon proposed in October a 500-ship Navy consisting of as many as 240 unmanned or optionally-manned vessels, both surface ships and undersea assets, that could conduct resupply, surveillance, mine, and strike missions, among other operations.

It remains to be seen if such a force will become reality, but the interest in using unmanned systems to augment the force is there.

For the Michael Monsoor, the second of the three stealthy Zumwalt-class destroyers, the upcoming Navy exercise is an opportunity to explore some potential options for the class amid uncertainty about the role the advanced vessels might play in combat.

Commanding multiple unmanned systems in an exercise of this scale will be a first for the ship.

uss zumwalt

The Navy commissioned the Zumwalt, the first of a new class of destroyers, in 2016, but the warship was not delivered to the service with a working combat system until April.

Among problems like cost overruns and major delays, a big problem with the Zumwalt was the two 155 mm guns of the Advanced Gun System.

When the Navy reduced its order for Zumwalt-class ships from roughly three dozen to just three, the cost of the rounds for the guns shot up. A single Long-Range Land Attack Projectile was going to cost almost $1 million.

The unacceptable price of the gun’s ammunition was just one of the problems with the guns that forced the Navy to reevaluate the combat system and shift the ship’s mission from a naval fire support role to maritime strike.

The Zumwalt fired its 30 mm Mk 46 MOD 2 Gun Weapon System for the first time in May and first launched a SM-2 missile from its Mk 57 Vertical Launching System in October.

More recently, there have been discussions about eventually arming the vessels with hypersonic missiles.

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Biden’s restrictions on drone strikes are about much more than drones

drone strikes
A US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan.

  • On his first day in office, President Joe Biden quietly implemented new restrictions on US drone strikes.
  • The temporary measures make such strikes subject to review by the National Security Council, and they have potentially far-reaching implications.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Pentagon confirmed this week that President Joe Biden has imposed new, temporary restrictions on counterterrorism drone strikes outside of active battlefields, making them subject to review by the National Security Council.

According to The New York Times, which first broke the news, the rules were quietly put in place on Biden’s first day in office, as a stopgap measure while his national security team conducts a broader review of US counterterrorism operations.

According to Charli Carpenter, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst specializing in the laws of war, the Biden administration’s review is a long-overdue opportunity to rein in the practice of targeted extrajudicial killings, like the drone strike that killed Iran’s top military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in January 2020. She joined WPR’s Elliot Waldman on the Trend Lines podcast this week to discuss the potentially far-reaching implications of Biden’s move.

The following is a partial transcript of the interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted drone aircraft performs aerial maneuvers over Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, U.S., June 25, 2015. U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Cory D. Payne/Handout via REUTERS
An MQ-9 Reaper over Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, June 25, 2015.

World Politics Review: What impact do you expect the Biden administration’s new rules will have on the frequency of US drone strikes around the world?

Charli Carpenter: I think it will immediately result in fewer drone strikes. Essentially what Biden is doing is he’s moving the barometer back to where it was before Trump devolved authority for drone strikes away from the executive branch and into the hands of commanders.

What that means is that anytime a drone strike is envisioned, it needs to be approved by the White House. There’s going to be a much higher level of oversight and much more concern over the legal nuances of each strike. It will just make drones harder to use, and you can imagine the weaponized drones will only be used in the most extreme cases.

WPR: What was the basis on which the Trump administration devolved the authority to commanders in the field? What impact did that have on the dynamics of the war on terror and also on the actual relationships with countries where these strikes were taking place?

Carpenter: One of the interesting things about Trump’s drone policy is we know much less about it than we knew about Obama’s policy, because he didn’t really explain his thinking or justify it publicly. A lot of those documents are classified. So, there’s a limited extent to which I can speak to it. My understanding of the rationale was that it was partly just to empower those in the field – lower-level commanders – to be much quicker on their feet.

Trump, of course, was not as concerned as the Obama administration was with the legal nuances of whether these strikes were really lawful under human rights law and under the laws of war. He also had a different perspective on grand strategy and the war on terror. I will say that I think that there was – to a great extent on the right during the Obama years – a sense that a commander’s hands were really being tied by all of the legal requirements and legal oversight for these strikes.

drone strike yemen
People gather at the site of a drone strike in the southern Yemeni province of Lahj, August 11, 2013.

WPR: How else did the rules that the Trump administration put in place differ from what the Obama administration was doing?

Carpenter: Essentially what he did is he removed oversight on strikes. He also removed the requirements to count and publicize civilian casualties.

In some respects, this really signaled to the military and to the CIA – which is not part of the military, it’s a civilian agency, but it does also have a drone program – that the gloves were coming off a bit. They wouldn’t be dealing with JAG lawyers [Judge Advocate General, the US military’s legal arm] at the highest levels, going over every strike. There was much less scrutiny on these pilots and on their commanders to account for collateral damage.

One thing that we do know from global civil society groups that track civilian casualties from drone strikes, or from airstrikes in general – groups like Airwars – is that civilian casualty counts went way up during the Trump administration. So that’s one of the concrete impacts and one of the regretful things that we would hope would be rolled back a bit by Biden’s new policy. We would hope to see civilian casualties go down.

But at the same time, I think that it’s important to note that part of the impetus for Trump’s shift comes from a sense that you heard from many commanders and troops in the field during the Obama years that their hands were really being tied in the war on terror by all of these legal nuances and legal strictures. There was a sense that much more discretion was needed in order to fight the war on terror effectively.

Now, that is disputed by many analysts who study counterterror dynamics. We know that if there’s a very large level of civilian casualties, there’s actually a blowback effect in terms of your effectiveness in counterterror operations. But there was very much a sense that this was going to assist troops. So you can imagine that there’s going to be some sense on the right that this is, again, going to hobble the troops in the field.

drone operators
Two drone operators fly an MQ-1 Predator on October 22, 2013.

WPR: One of the interesting things about this new rule that the Biden administration put in place was its distinction between active battle zones and the fact that the rules only apply to areas outside of those active battle zones. What does that distinction mean in reality? Is there a formal definition for that?

Carpenter: The Biden administration is attempting to create a formal definition, and governments do this – they creatively interpret norms and laws to suit their moral proclivities and their strategic interests at the time. This is not a term in international humanitarian law, but it does map onto an important distinction. It’s a salient distinction, the kinds of theaters where we are using weaponized drones. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is sort of the guardian of international humanitarian law, would use language about “situations of armed conflict, in which the US is a party to the conflict.”

A situation like that would be Afghanistan or Iraq, and to some extent, Syria. But Pakistan is not such a situation. There is to some extent an armed conflict going on there, a low-level armed conflict, but the US is not a party to that conflict. It is not a party to the war in Yemen, or a party to what’s going on in Somalia.

These are three areas in which the US has used drones, to a greater or lesser extent, to essentially decapitate individuals suspected of being terrorists or al-Qaida affiliates or militants. That is a different beast than using air power in an active battle zone where the US is engaged in hostilities against either another state or nonstate armed forces.

The reason why this matters is that in war, there’s one set of legal rules that applies, and within certain constraints, you’re actually allowed to kill people. But outside of situations of armed conflict, those rules don’t apply. The rules that apply are human rights law, which says you actually can’t just carry out extrajudicial executions of individuals you suspect of criminal activity. You’ve got to capture them and try them and punish them for their crimes if they’ve committed crimes, and offer them due process and release them if they’re found innocent.

So, the idea that we would be using military air power – which also risks civilian lives in the vicinity, regardless of how precise we try to be – in areas that are not hot battlefields, is extremely problematic in terms of international law, as many human rights lawyers and human rights groups have argued. So the fact that Biden is actually pointing to this distinction can be very impactful in shifting US rhetoric and international rhetoric on when drones might be acceptable, and when they may not be.

US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone pilot Creech
An MQ-9 Reaper pilot controls an aircraft from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.

WPR: We’ve seen a lot of other countries use drones in battlefields, for example, in Libya, and also recently in Nagorno-Karabakh in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But is the US the only one right now using drones for these kinds of extrajudicial executions that you’re talking about?

Carpenter: That’s a good question. I would want to really research that before answering, but it’s certainly the country that is most known for using drones in this way. I will say that there are nonstate actors that have also tried to use drones to assassinate their enemies. It’s rather simple to actually use a weaponized drone to go after anybody you want. It’s one of the ironies that we’ve popularized and proliferated this technology, which could so easily be used against us.

But it’s the United States that has really become known for this tactic, and really criticized for this tactic by many actors, including local groups in Pakistan, a wide grassroots movement in the US and in Europe, and to some extent, the big international human rights and humanitarian law organizations.

These organizations are not so much concerned with drones per se, because drones are really not so different from their perspective from any other aerial platform for delivering weapons in an armed conflict. The concern is that they’re being used essentially for a campaign of extrajudicial execution in areas in which we’re not at war.

This is really a precedent that the US has set that thankfully not so many countries have followed. But it would not surprise me if some were beginning to, and I would expect more and more to do so in the future if this isn’t reigned in a bit. That may be what Biden is trying to do.

It may be that his advisers have decided that the risks of proliferating and justifying a type of act that could easily be used against us by our adversaries, or in areas where our civilians are at risk, isn’t worth the potential hypothetical gains in counterterror operations. They may have determined that we may in fact benefit from – in terms of our counterterror work – using means that are much more likely to protect civilians.

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