In just one example of how the US military is thinking outside the box and developing its own asymmetric responses to the growing threats posed by China, the U.S. Air Force is considering deploying large numbers of armed drones in shipping containers across small islands in the South Pacific. If pursued, this concept proposed by Pentagon contractor, Kratos Defense, could severely complicate China’s military calculations.
As Popular Mechanics reported, the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) being considered is the XQ-58A Valkyrie, a short takeoff drone with near jet fighter performance. At 30 feet long with a 27-foot wingspan, it has a top speed of almost Mach 1 and can carry up to two 250 pound GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs.
The XQ-58A doesn’t need a long runway for takeoffs and landings, instead, it’s launched from a short rail, using rocket boosters to get airborne. Once in the air, the drone’s turbofan engine takes over for the rest of the flight.
Probably the Valkyrie’s best feature is its 3,000 nautical-mile range. Popular Mechanics notes that Valkyries stored on the U.S. territory of Guam could easily reach Hong Kong, Shanghai, and even Beijing. Drones stored at secret locations even closer to China could range even deeper into the Chinese mainland. In case of war, the Air Force could launch, in short order, swarms of drones from the containers to overwhelm Chinese defenses.
It would take U.S. airmen a “very small number of hours,” according to a Kratos official quoted at Flightglobal, to prepare the drone for combat. The first step is to attach the wings (the drone can only be stored in a standard shipping container without its wings attached). The drone could then be armed with two GBU-39s, or even air-to-air missiles, prior to launch.
Within a fairly short period of time, scores or even hundreds of drones could be ready to fight. But the uncertainty created by this concept provides another important added value.
As General C.Q. Brown, recently nominated to be the next head of the Air Force, said in 2019, according to Popular Mechanics, “If a 20-foot container can actually contain some type of weapon system and I have 1,000 20-foot containers spread throughout the region, as an adversary, which one is the one that actually has the capability? Which one is just empty?”
Pursuing this novel concept would mean that in any future war Chinese military leaders would then need to worry not only fighting in the Pacific but also about protecting Chinese airspace from armed, long-range drones secretly stored throughout the Pacific. And at $2-3 million per drone, the U.S. could deploy large numbers at a fraction of the cost of $90 million F-35 stealth fighters.
Paul Crespo is a defense and national security expert. He served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. He holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. Paul is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and a Contributor to American Defense News.