Kratos Defense and Security Solutions today provided the first full-color photo of its Air Wolf tactical drone system in a press release covering its family of “Collaborative Combat Aircraft.”
Air Wolf, first revealed to the public by Kratos in August 2021, is based on the MQM-178 Firejet air target. Unveiled in mid-2007, the Firejet is Kratos’ smallest airborne offering compared to the BQM-177 Sub-Sonic Aerial Target (SSAT) and BQM-167 Subscale Aerial Target (AFSAT) targets. Unlike the BQM-177 and BQM-167 platforms, the Firejet does not require a rocket-assisted launch mechanism, only a pneumatic catapult. This allows for easier launch from both land- and sea-based platforms and requires very little logistical footprint.
It’s one of the smallest ‘trustworthy wingman’ style drones we know on the market, and its test target DNA means it’s likely to be among the cheapest too. This could prove extremely attractive depending on how the Air Force and other air forces proceed with their manned and unmanned air teaming initiatives.
Air Wolf’s new photo offers a fresh take on the plane, as well as a look at the livery Kratos chose for the platform. It appears to retain the bright orange color around the Firejet’s engine intake, and the rest of the aircraft is finished in gloss black. This differs from the first photo Kratos posted of the Air Wolf; This photo showed a much lighter livery throughout the aircraft with black writing for FAA registration.
In the first photo, Air Wolf was physically identical to the MQM-178 Firejet, except for the civilian registration on the aircraft’s tail. Steve Findley, President of Kratos’ Unmanned Systems Division, specifically pointed this out The War Zone that the “external mold line” or physical dimensions of the aircraft are identical between the MQM-178 Firejet and the Air Wolf, but the internal systems are very different. In this new photo, the drone also appears to be carrying a new payload from BAE Systems. This payload, referred to as the “tactical mission system” in the press release, does not match any of BAE Systems’ currently known airborne payloads. The mystery payload appears to have an enlarged front end to which a red “remove before flight” lanyard is attached, suggesting it could be a removable front cap protecting a lens or antenna, or maybe around an atmospheric sensor inlet.
Aside from two press releases, some investor relations presentations, and previously released information, very little has been released about Air Wolf by Kratos The War Zone.
Air Wolf’s Firejet precursor was originally developed by Composite Engineering Inc. prior to 2012 and is intended to provide an effective training target for current generation aircraft and air defense systems. After Kratos acquired CEI in May 2012, the company began production of the Firejet through its new Unmanned Systems Division, 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 flight test center at the Oklahoma Air & Space Port outside of Burns Flat, Oklahoma in 2021.
A slide from a 2020 investor presentation published by Kratos mentions the “Tactical Firejet” project, which is a partnership with AeroVironment that intends to launch a switchblade suicide drone from a Firejet drone (more on that capability in a moment) . Later presentations simultaneously mention Air Wolf and Tactical Firejet, suggesting that the two projects either merged between 2020 and 2021 or were just ever two different names for the same platform that included the Switchblade capability. The first Air Wolf prototype, N887RZ, is marked in the FAA records as being manufactured in 2019, indicating that this specific airframe has 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 flying within airspace controlled by the Oklahoma Spaceport. While the plane can fly between 20 feet and 35,000 feet, Kratos has imposed a restriction on Air Wolf flights that requires it to stay between 10,000 feet and 16,000 feet. According to the same records, the Air Wolf has flown a total of 83 hours as of August 25, 2021. Another MQM-178 Firejet received civilian registration as N501YM in March of this year, according to FAA records. This aircraft shares a similar serial number, which may indicate another Air Wolf prototype is under development.
In September 2021, Kratos confirmed this The War Zone that the Air Wolf had successfully employed Aerovironment’s loitering Switchblade series ammunition, which is intended to be fired first from a pneumatic tube by an operator on the ground. Kratos Unmanned Systems Division President Steve Fendley also noted at the time that Kratos had received contracts to supply the Air Wolf drone to several unidentified customers.
Air Wolf’s ability to launch the switchblade would provide the platform with an extended surveillance range, using the switchblades to gather additional intel. The US Army previously tested such a concept at Project Convergence 2020 and created a concept video showing four small drones being air-launched and flying into enemy-controlled territory, providing a more detailed intelligence image.
In the case of switchblades, they could also be used as kinetic weapons: fly out, uniquely identify them, and then hit the target. Other potential uses include acting as a decoy or even providing backup jamming support.
It was not specified which version of Switchblade was launched by the Air Wolf; The Switchblade 600 version has anti-tank capabilities, while the Switchblade 300 version is only effective against soft targets and people.
MUM-T began the US Air Force’s Have Raider and Have Raider II programs in 2015, where a manned F-16D piloted a modified NF-16D, redesignated the X-62A. Since then, MUM-T has been tested numerous times by a number of manufacturers, with one of the earlier examples being Kratos’ own UTAP-22 drone. In 2015, the Kratos drone successfully handed control between a ground control station and a United States Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier on 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 also underway, at least to a limited extent, in the top-secret realm.
While it’s sitting, much of the Airwolf program remains obscured, but at least we’re seeing a bit more of the plane in photos, as well as at least one of its potential payloads.
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