USAF contracts Exosonic to develop ‘Red Air’ supersonic UAV

Exosonic has been awarded a Direct to Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract by the US Air Force (USAF) to develop a low boom supersonic unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) demonstrator that could be used to support adversary air (ADAIR) training operations.

The US-based low boom supersonic transport start-up company announced it had received this contract on October 7, adding that it was awarded by the US Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL’s) AFWERX programme. This contract will be handled in partnership with the USAF’s Air Combat Command (ACC) and Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate. The value of this SBIR contract was not disclosed by the USAF or Exosonic, but this contracting period is scheduled to last for 15 months.

Exosonic states that this low boom supersonic UAV will be developed to aid the USAF’s pilot training mission by “acting as a near-peer adversary fighter to challenge fighter pilots in live flight training.” It adds that the USAF is unable to efficiently produce new, fully trained fighter pilots due to constrained training budgets and a pilot shortage.

Exosonic low boom supersonic UAV ADAIR demonstrator concept image [Exosonic]
An artist's digital rendering depicting what Exosonic's low boom supersonic UAV would look like in operational USAF service. The platform is being designed as a low-cost solution for conducting adversary air training operations and reducing the wear-and-tear on manned fighters that currently facilitate this role. Exosonic

“As a result, a limited number of fighter pilots are receiving the training necessary to be prepared to defend our country against near-peer adversaries,” the company said.

Exosonic’s currently unnamed low boom supersonic UAV will be developed in a bid to mitigate this problem and is intended to serve as a mock adversary or ‘Red Air’ platform that will be used to stress fighter pilots in live flight training exercises. While not much was disclosed about the new UAV, the company said it will be equipped with a variety of payloads and sensors.

The platform will enable the USAF to conduct ADAIR training operations at a fraction of the cost required by existing live ADAIR training solutions. Its introduction would also help to reduce wear-and-tear on operational USAF combat aircraft – which are currently used to support aggressor training – and allow fighter pilots to focus their time flying blue air training missions, rather than serving as the enemy for their counterparts.

This low boom supersonic UAV will also demonstrate technologies that will be directly relevant to the Exosonic’s development of a quiet supersonic airliner, as well as building a short-term revenue path. “The company plans to reinvest the profits from UAV sales to fund future supersonic product developments, such as the airliner,” Exosonic added.

Norris Tie, CEO of Exosonic, said: “The supersonic UAV work is critical to our company’s strategy due to how much we’ll learn about designing, manufacturing, and maintaining supersonic airplanes with our first UAV products. The UAV is also important to our company’s longevity.

“It will provide profits that we can funnel back into our company and give investors, suppliers, and customers confidence that we can deliver supersonic aircraft to the market before anyone needs to make a multi-billion dollar investment,” he added.

In addition to working with the USAF on this project, Exosonic is also working with government ‘Red Air’ contractors to understand how ADAIR pilot training can be improved. In October 2019, the USAF selected several companies to provide its Combat Air Force (CAF) with regular ADAIR training under a $6.4bn not-to-exceed combined contract.

Commenting on the development of a low boom supersonic UAV, Jim DiMatteo – director of communications and an F-5 ADAIR pilot with Tactical Air Support – added: “Tactical Air Support is excited to see an emerging supersonic UAV platform that can operate jointly with a piloted contract adversary like the Tactical Air Support F-5 Advanced Tiger. These expanded capabilities will significantly enhance the [US Department of Defense’s] blue forces training at a reduced cost.”