Kratos Defense and Security Solutions, in a press release about its family of “collaborative fighter aircraft”, provided the first color photo of its Air Wolf tactical drone system earlier today.
Air Wolf, which was first revealed to the public by Kratos in August 2021, is based on the MQM-178 Firejet airborne target. Unveiled in mid-2007, the Firejet is Kratos’ smallest airborne target offering, compared to the BQM-177 Subsonic Airborne Targets (SSAT) and BQM-167 Subscale Airborne Targets (AFSAT). Unlike the BQM-177 and BQM-167 platforms, the Firejet does not require a rocket-assisted take-off mechanism, only a pneumatic catapult. This allows it to be launched more easily from land and sea platforms, requiring only a very small logistics footprint.
It’s one of the smallest ‘stalwart wingman’ style drones we know of and its test target DNA means it’s likely to be among the cheapest too. This could prove very attractive depending on how the Air Force and other air arms proceed with their manned and unmanned air team initiatives.
Air Wolf’s new photo gives a new angle of the plane, as well as a look at the paint scheme Kratos chose for the rig. It appears to retain the bright orange paint around the Firejet’s engine intake, and the rest of the plane is painted gloss black. This differs from Kratos’ first published photo of the Air Wolf; this photo showed a much lighter paint scheme across the entire aircraft with black writing for the FAA registration.
In the first photo, Air Wolf was physically identical to the MQM-178 Firejet except for the civil registration towards the rear of the aircraft. Kratos Unmanned Systems Division President Steve Findley specifically noted The war zone that the “external mold line”, or the physical dimensions of the aircraft, are identical between the MQM-178 Firejet and the Air Wolf, but the internal systems are quite different. In this new photo, the drone also appears to be carrying a new BAE Systems payload. This payload, referred to in the press release as a “Tactical Mission System”, does not match any currently known airborne payload from BAE Systems. The mysterious payload appears to have an enlarged front end with a red “remove before flight” lanyard attached, suggesting it could be a removable front cap protecting a lens or antenna, or possibly a power socket. atmospheric sensor.
Very little has been released by Kratos regarding Air Wolf beyond two press releases, a few investor relations presentations, and information previously released by The war zone.
Originally created by Composite Engineering Inc. prior to 2012, the Air Wolf Progenitor Firejet is designed to provide an effective training target for current generation aircraft and air defense systems. After Kratos acquired CEI in May 2012, the company began producing the Firejet through its new unmanned systems division, which was made up of former CEI employees and infrastructure.
In 2018, Kratos opened a new manufacturing facility at Will Rogers Business Park in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma with the goal of increasing production rates and offering more competitive pricing compared to other companies developing unmanned aerial vehicles . Shortly after expanding its Oklahoma City facility in 2020, Kratos established a test flight center at Oklahoma Air and Space Port just outside of Burns Flat, Oklahoma in 2021.
A slide from a 2020 investor presentation posted by Kratos mentions that the “Tactical Firejet” project is a partnership with AeroVironment, intending to launch a Switchblade suicide drone from a Firejet drone (more on this capacity one minute). Later presentations mention Air Wolf and Tactical Firejet at the same time, suggesting that the two projects were either merged between 2020 and 2021 or were still just two different names for the same platform, which included the Switchblade capability. The first Air Wolf prototype, N887RZ, is marked in FAA documents as having been manufactured in 2019, indicating that this specific airframe moved and changed designations through several iterations of the Tactical Firejet / Air Wolf programs .
According to FAA documentation on the first Air Wolf prototype, the aircraft is restricted to flight in Oklahoma Spaceport-controlled airspace. While the plane is capable of flying between 20ft and 35,000ft, Kratos set a restriction on Air Wolf flights, requiring it to stay between 10,000ft and 16,000ft. According to the same documents, as of August 25, 2021, the Air Wolf has flown a total of 83 hours. According to FAA records, another MQM-178 Firejet received civilian registration N501YM in March of this year. This aircraft bears a similar serial number, which may suggest another Air Wolf prototype in development.
In September 2021, Kratos confirmed The war zone that the Air Wolf had successfully deployed Aerovironment’s Switchblade series stray munitions, which are primarily designed to be launched from a pneumatic tube by a ground operator. Kratos Unmanned Systems Division President Steve Fendley also noted at the time that Kratos had secured contracts to supply the Air Wolf drone to several unidentified customers.
Air Wolf’s ability to throw the Switchblade would provide extended surveillance range to the platform, using the Switchblades to gather additional intelligence. The US military has already tested such a concept during Project Convergence 2020 and created a concept video showing four small air-launched drones flying in enemy-controlled territory and providing a more detailed intelligence picture.
In the case of Switchblades, they could also be used as kinetic weapons: fly up, positively identify, and then strike the target. Other possible uses include decoy function or even providing backup jamming support.
It was not specified which version of Switchblade was launched from the Air Wolf; the Switchblade 600 version has anti-armour capabilities, while the Switchblade 300 version is only effective against easy targets and personnel.
MUM-T began with the US Air Force’s “Have Raider” and “Have Raider II” programs in 2015, with a manned F-16D controlling a modified NF-16D which was redesignated X-62A. Since then, MUM-T has been tested many times by a number of manufacturers, one of the first examples being Kratos’ UTAP-22 drone. In 2015, the Kratos drone successfully transferred control between a ground control station and a United States Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier during each of three test flights.
Later tests included versions of the UTAP-22, as well as General Atomics’ MQ-20 Avenger, to name a few. Boeing also began testing its MQ-28 Ghost Bat “loyal wingman” drone in November 2021. Development in this area is most likely underway, at least to some extent, in the deeply classified area as well.
As it stands, much of the Airwolf program remains obscured, but at least we see a bit more of the plane in the photos, along with at least one of its potential payloads.
Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com
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