An enemy fighter jet rockets through the sky, traveling at a speed just below Mach 1. The aircraft suddenly dips, zooming six feet above the ocean then abruptly soars skyward, performing corkscrews and rotations as it tries to elude the oncoming missile. A U.S. pilot watching the enemy aircraft aims toward it. With a hit of the control panel, he fires and shoots. It’s a kill. And the realistic drone then drops to Earth with a parachute attached.
This is the world of 21st-century warfare training: Kratos Defense & Security Solutions is preparing the U.S. military for the next evolution in combat by building high-tech, state-of-the-art aerial target drones that are smaller versions of advanced jet fighters.
Based in San Diego, Kratos has two dozen locations across the world, including in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Australia and the United Kingdom. The company has three offices and 500 employees in its Sacramento Unmanned Systems division. The division’s offices are in Roseville while the drones are built at two 80,000-square foot warehouses — one at McClellan Park and the other on Raley Boulevard in Rio Linda.
The lightweight unmanned target drones are used for tests and evaluations of weapons systems, radar, air-to-air missiles and ship defense systems. They can perform maneuvers that are too risky for human pilots or too expensive to attempt with a real fighter jet. For target practice, the military doesn’t use one of its $100 million aircrafts as a target — they use a drone, which has a more modest price ranging from $300,000 to $3 million.
“The target drones are an affordable way to perform tests and evaluation, and they also use them for training,” says Jared Ethier, director of business development for Kratos. “You have planes — the drones — that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars instead of tens or thousands of millions of dollars. They’re affordable enough that — where we don’t want to lose them, but if we do lose them — it’s not like we’re losing a hundred million dollar aircraft.”
Kratos is discreet about disclosing information on contracts it is awarded. In December 2019, the company was awarded $50 million for product and hardware “in support of a national security program” but declined to state which one in its news release. But sometimes Kratos does publicly name customers, such as when it received $3 million from the Australian Department of Defense for hardware and software upgrades to its aviation training center in January 2020.
The company also sells drones to countries in Europe, Southeast Asia and the Middle East after obtaining permission from the U.S. Department of State, Ethier says. Kratos’ Sacramento division built 118 drones in 2019, a 58 percent increase from the year before, earning the company $132 million in revenue last year. They are projected to build 146 in 2020, says Ethier.
Kratos builds different types of drones for use by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Army to emulate their varying aircraft. “The Air Force has a particular performance,” Ethier says. “It’s a larger airplane, carries more payload and flies at a higher altitude. The Navy airplane is designed for what they do at lower altitudes and high speeds. They do simulations of anti-ship cruise missiles.” Kratos provides unmanned boat drones called Kratos C2 to the Army.
The target drone is about 20 feet long, has a long, lean nose and is painted bright orange so it can be easily spotted in the air for target practice. The more sophisticated Valkyrie drone is an experimental stealth unmanned aerial vehicle. “It’s something the government would use in a conflict,” Ethier says. The Valkyrie looks more sinister, like a fighter jet, charcoal gray with the ability to fly alongside a manned fighter crew during combat or collect information. It has long-range, high-speed maneuverability and is able to deliver lethal weapons from its internal bomb bay and wing stations. “So if the military is developing a new weapons system or defense system, they use these as part of test and evaluation to make sure the system performs the way they want it to,” Ethier says.
Although used as targets, the drones are reusable — as long as the military trainees don’t accidentally shoot them down. “They are deliberately trying not to hit it so they can reuse the drone,” Ethier says. “But they program the missile to get as close to the drone as it could. If it gets close, it’s a success. If it’s way off, it’s a miss.” Operators use laptops or a control panel with a joystick to maneuver them; tests are typically charted out beforehand with the operator knowing the route of the drone while the trainee does not.
The drones are propelled into the air via solid rocket boosters or a pneumatic (air powered) launcher, a high-powered catapult off the back of a flatbed truck. Once airborne, they are powered by jet fuel. The airplanes are tested at coastal military installations, including Point Mugu in Ventura County and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.
Inside Kratos’ warehouse in Rio Linda, the drones are built from start to finish by hand in different work bays. The drones are made of carbon fiber, which is durable and lightweight. The parts are cast from molds, which are then covered in bright orange prepreg, or reinforced, weaved carbon fibers, and glued together by hand. Next, their internal parts are put in — the flight computer, transponder, radio and actuators for control avionics. Each drone is equipped with a parachute for landing. The final step is testing the engine and wing strength before delivery.
Kratos is the only company that makes realistic combat drones in the United States, according to Ethier — and it plans to keep it that way by providing a quality product. “We are absolutely staying ahead,” he says “It’s a very specialized market. We’re looking at our customers’ needs and what we can do to deliver high-quality, high-performing systems.”