Drone maker Kratos recently offered the first look at its new Airwolf unmanned aircraft, also sometimes written Air Wolf, which the company describes as a tactical platform intended to perform various military missions. Just as Kratos' existing UTAP-22 Mako tactical unmanned aircraft is derived from the BQM-167 Skeeter target drone, Air Wolf is based on the smaller MQM-178 Firejet aerial target.
On Aug. 25, 2021, Kratos released a picture, seen at the top of this story, of an Air Wolf drone just prior to launch at a range in Burns Flat, Oklahoma, along with press release regarding that test flight. It is not clear when this test flight occurred or if it was the first successful flight of an Air Wolf drone, though we do know it was the first flight test of any kind at the Burns Flat range. Kratos had previously said it expected to begin flight testing of this unmanned aircraft last year.
The "Air Wolf Tactical Drone System completed a 100 percent successful flight at the recently approved Burns Flat, Oklahoma Range Facility," the press release said. "The Kratos Air Wolf Mission, which was the inaugural flight at the Burns Flat Range location, included multiple new payloads carried by the Air Wolf Drone, including a proprietary Kratos artificial intelligence/autonomy system, which has been developed by Kratos specifically for high performance, jet drone aircraft."
It is also worth noting that Kratos has a manufacturing facility in Oklahoma City, around 95 miles east of Burns Flat.
“This successful Air Wolf flight at the recently approved Burns Flat Range facility is the latest example of the teaming approach Kratos routinely takes with its partners at the local, state and federal government levels with the objective of accelerating technology development and a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math advancement," Steve Fendley, President of Kratos Unmanned Systems Division, said in the press release. "The Air Wolf drone system that successfully flew today demonstrated a number of new mission systems which we believe are operationally and tactically relevant for Kratos’ government customer set, as our proven commercial development approach and robust digital engineering, modeling and simulation capabilities, and affordability-focused processes continue to successfully rapidly deliver affordable high performance jet aircraft, not just models, surrogates, or renditions."
Beyond the mention of the drone's "artificial intelligence/autonomy system," Kratos' press release offers few details about Air Wolf's general specifications or its capabilities. However, a briefing Kratos gave to investors in January makes clear that this drone is based on the MQM-178, referring to it as "Airwolf (Tactical Firejet)." Another presentation the company gave to members of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce last year also described it as "Airwolf (Tac FJ)."
This is all further reinforced by the fact that the drone in the picture that Kratos released last week is registered as an MQM-178 with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Individuals online had previously been able to determine its U.S. civil registration code, which is N887RZ.
It would not necessarily take much to reconfigure the MQM-178, which is powered by two small JetCat C81 turbojets, for missions beyond that of being a target drone. Firejet, which has an overall length of 10.8 feet and a wingspan of 6.5 feet, can carry around 70 and a half pounds of payload internally, as well as nearly 35 pounds more under each wing and an additional 20 pounds in pods on each wingtip. The drone, which is launched via a catapult system, has a maximum takeoff weight of close to 320 pounds.
In their roles as flying targets, MQM-178s typically carry payloads such as towed targets and fixed flares, as well as radiofrequency emitters and other infrared heat sources to mimic different kinds of threats and make the drone easier to track. With these various payloads, the Firejets can help support aerial combat and air defense training exercises, as well as various research and development and test and evaluation activities.
A tactical version of this drone could easily substitute those payloads for various kinds of intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance (ISR) sensor packages, electronic warfare systems, communications relay nodes, and more. Small munitions might even be an option. The website for a company called 5-D Systems, a Kratos subsidiary, has an artist's conception of Air Wolf alongside pictures of the UTAP-22 and XQ-58A Valkyrie drones, all under the heading "Tactical ISR/Strike Jet UAS."
Interestingly, in another briefing Kratos had given to investors in March 2020, Air Wolf is described separately from Tactical Firejet, with the latter project being described as an "initiative to deploy 'Switchblade' Tactical Drone Munition from FireJet Drone." Switchblade is a small loitering munition, also known as a suicide drone, which can perform ISR tasks and then prosecute targets it finds directly. You can read more about it here.
That presentation also says the company was working on Tactical Firejet, a self-funded effort, in cooperation with AeroVironment, which manufactures the Switchblade, among other things. The customer for Air Wolf is said to be "confidential" and is not named.
Kratos is, of course, heavily engaged with the U.S. military, especially the U.S. Air Force, as well as the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Its work for the Air Force most notably includes the stealthy XQ-58A Valkyrie drone, a platform that demonstrated its ability to deploy a smaller drone from its internal bay earlier this year and has also been used in a host of other tests, and the Skyborg program. The goal of Skyborg is to develop an artificial intelligence-driven "computer brain" and associated systems that will be able to fly various "loyal wingman" type drones, as well as fully autonomous unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV). A modified UTAP-22, a design that the Navy and Marines have already experimented with, as well, has been used in a number of initial Skyborg flight tests.
Kratos announced just last month that it was working on another Air Force program, known as the Off-Board Sensing Station, which is being managed by Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). You can read more about what is known about that secretive program here.
The company is also part of a team led by Dynetics that has been working with DARPA on the Gremlins program. Gremlins, which you can read more about here, is exploring the development of air-launched and air-recoverable drones that can operate together as an autonomous networked swarm.
Kratos is known to be working on a number of other classified projects for unspecified customers, as well.
Air Wolf, which we know has now been tested with an artificial intelligence-driven autonomy system, would be very much in line with these other developments. An MQM-178-derived platform would notably represent a general capability that is substantially smaller and lighter than either the XQ-58A or the UTAP-22. Air Wolf would seem to be the lower end of an emerging three-tier product line, with UTAP-22 in the middle and XQ-58A at the top-end capability and complexity-wise. Its size could make it ideal for air-launched employment, as either a loyal wingman or an ISR/strike asset, compared to either of these other drones.
In addition, Kratos regularly touts the "attritable" nature of the XQ-58A and the UTAP-22. What this means is that these drones are not explicitly expendable, but they are intended to be cheap enough that they could be employed in higher-risk environments where commanders might be more reluctant to commit more costly exquisite assets. The smaller Air Wolf could be even more cost-effective for a variety of mission sets.
"Kratos’ Ghost Works played an incredibly important role in today’s successful Air Wolf flight, and with our Valkyrie, Mako, Gremlin and Air Wolf drones, we believe that we are ready now, today, to meet our customers’ requirements with a family of affordable, high performance jet drones in the disposable, reusable and attritable classes," Eric DeMarco, President and CEO of Kratos, had said in last week's press release.
If nothing else, Air Wolf underscores how Kratos continues to grow its already impressive portfolio of advanced unmanned aircraft and expand its related work on autonomy and other related capabilities.
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