Kratos Defense and Security Solutions, in a press release about its “collaborative fighter aircraft” family, today provided the first full-color photo of its Air Wolf tactical drone system.
Air Wolf, which Kratos first revealed to the public in August 2021, is based on the MQM-178 Firejet airborne target. Introduced in mid-2007, the Firejet is Kratos’ smallest aerial target offering, compared to the BQM-177 Sub-Sonic Aerial Target (SSAT) and BQM-167 Subscale Aerial Target (AFSAT). Unlike the BQM-177 and BQM-167 platforms, the Firejet does not require a rocket-assisted takeoff mechanism, only a pneumatic catapult. This allows it to be more easily launched from land and sea platforms, requiring only a very small logistical footprint.
It’s one of the smallest ‘loyal wingmen’ style drones we know are on offer and its test target DNA means it’ll probably be among the cheapest too. This could be very attractive depending on how the Air Force and other air arms proceed with their manned and unmanned aerial equipment initiatives.
Air Wolf’s new photo offers a new angle of the aircraft, as well as a look at the paint scheme Kratos has chosen for the deck. It appears to retain the bright orange paint around the Firejet’s engine intake, and the rest of the aircraft is painted gloss black. This differs from the first photo Kratos posted of the Air Wolf; that photo showed a much lighter paint scheme throughout the plane with black writing for FAA registration.
In the first photo, Air Wolf was physically identical to the MQM-178 Firejet, except for the civil registration on the rear of the aircraft. Kratos Unmanned Systems Division President Steve Findley specifically pointed to the war zone that the “outer mold line”, or physical dimensions of the aircraft, are identical between the MQM-178 Firejet and Air Wolf, but the internal systems are quite different. In this new photo, the drone also appears to be carrying a new payload from BAE Systems. This payload, referred to in the press release as a “Tactical Mission System”, does not match any currently known BAE Systems airborne payload. The mysterious payload appears to have an enlarged front end with a red lanyard that says “remove before flight,” suggesting it could be a removable front cover protecting a lens or antenna, or perhaps an atmospheric sensor input.
Kratos has released very little about Air Wolf beyond two press releases, a few investor relations presentations, and information previously released by the war zone.
Initially created by Composite Engineering Inc. prior to 2012, Air Wolf’s 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 the Will Rogers Business Park in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with the goal of increasing production rates and offering more competitive prices against other companies developing UAVs. Shortly after expanding his Oklahoma City facility in 2020, Kratos established a test flight center at the Oklahoma Air and Space Port outside of Burns Flat, Oklahoma in 2021.
A slide from a 2020 investor presentation published by Kratos mentions that the “Tactical Firejet” project is a partnership with AeroVironment, with the intention of launching a Switchblade suicide drone from a Firejet drone (more on that capability in a minute). Later filings mention Air Wolf and Tactical Firejet at the same time, suggesting that the two projects merged between 2020 and 2021 or were always just two different names for the same platform, which included the Switchblade capability. The first Air Wolf prototype, N887RZ, is marked on FAA paperwork as being manufactured in 2019, indicating that this specific airframe has moved and changed designation through various iterations of the Tactical Firejet/Air Wolf programs.
According to FAA documentation on Air Wolf’s first prototype, the aircraft is restricted to flying within airspace controlled by the Oklahoma spaceport. While the plane is capable of flying between 20 and 35,000 feet, Kratos has placed a restriction on Air Wolf flights, requiring it to stay between 10,000 and 16,000 feet. According to the same documentation, as of August 25, 2021, Air Wolf has flown a total of 83 hours. According to FAA records, another MQM-178 Firejet received a civil registration of N501YM in March of this year. This aircraft has a similar serial number, which could suggest another Air Wolf prototype in development.
In September 2021, Kratos confirmed to the war zone that Air Wolf had successfully deployed Aerovironment’s Switchblade-series loitering munitions, which are designed first to be launched 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 provide the Air Wolf drone to various unnamed customers.
Air Wolf’s ability to launch Switchblade would offer extended surveillance range to the platform, using Switchblades to gather additional intelligence. The US Army tested such a concept before in Project Convergence 2020 and created a concept video showing four small air-launched drones flying into enemy-held territory and providing a more detailed intelligence picture. .
In the case of the Switchblades, they could also be used as kinetic weapons: fly, positively identify, and then strike the target. Other possible uses include acting as decoys or even providing stand-in jamming support.
It was not specified which version of the Switchblade was released from Air Wolf; the Switchblade 600 version has anti-armor capabilities, while the Switchblade 300 version is only effective against soft 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 that was redesignated the X-62A. Since then, MUM-T has been tested multiple times by various manufacturers, with one of the earliest examples being Kratos’ UTAP-22 drone. In 2015, the Kratos drone was able to successfully hand over control between a ground control station and a United States Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier in 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 ‘loyal wingman’ MQ-28 Ghost Bat drone in November 2021. It is very likely that development in this area has been ongoing, at least to a limited degree, also in the deeply classified realm.
As it stands, much of the Airwolf program remains hidden, but at least we’re seeing a bit more of the aircraft in the photos, as well as at least one of its possible payloads.
Contact the publisher: Tyler@thedrive.com