Soaring unit costs for frontline military aircraft that have effectively reduced the size of U.S. fleets is forcing a shift to so-called “attritable” designs emphasizing lower-cost unmanned aircraft that can be reused at least several times with minimal maintenance.

The design philosophy—an apparent reference to the term “attrit,” as in wearing down an opponent via sustained attacks—is being driven by soaring procurement costs for modern weapons, most notably the poster child of out-of-control unit costs, the F-35 Lightning, that currently costs about $90 million a copy.

XQ-58A

For military purposes, “attritable” is defined as a design trait that trades reliability and maintenance for low-cost, reusable and eventually expendable weapons. The approach is akin to the destroyer escorts used by the U.S. Navy in World War II to defend heavily-armored capital ships and convoys.

Among the earliest manifestations of the shift towards attritable weapons is a menacing-looking unmanned aircraft dubbed the XQ-58A Valkyrie. The long-range, pilotless aircraft completed it's maiden flight at the Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz., in early March.

Developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and industry partner Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, the joint effort is part of Lab’s Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology initiative. The service said LCAAT’s objective is “to break the escalating cost trajectory of tactically relevant aircraft.”

"The motivation for this initiative is driven by the fact that when you look at the cost of exquisite weapon systems and air vehicles, and you look at the trajectory of their cost, there really is nothing in place to inhibit that cost to continue to grow," William Baron, LCAAT program manager, told IHS Jane’s.

Among the system approaches being embraced by the effort are accelerating the development of low-cost unmanned aircraft using advanced design tools and commercial manufacturing processes.

Efforts to rein in the soaring unit cost of modern weapons date back to at least 2014 when then-DARPA chief Arati Prabakhar declared that the pursuit of complex, monolithic weapon systems without regard to cost “is now killing us.”

In announcing Valkyrie’s successful inaugural flight, the Air Force Test Lab said development took just over 2.5 years after a contract was awarded to Kratos. A total of five test flights are planned to evaluate system and aerodynamic performance along with launch and recovery systems.

San Diego-based Kratos Defense and Security Solutions said the XQ-58A demonstrator completed its test objectives during a 76-minute flight. The “runway independent” UAV is designed for long-range flights at “high-subsonic speeds.”