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Kratos acquires autonomous fifth-generation fighter developer Sierra Technical Services | News

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Manufacturer of military uncrewed aerial vehicles Kratos has acquired competitor Sierra Technical Services.

The purchase by Kratos, which is a leader in the nascent field of autonomous fighter aircraft, comes just weeks after the Pentagon awarded Sierra a $77 million contract for a jet-powered autonomous target platform.

5GAT Right Rear Lkg Fwd Iso view

Sierra founder and president Roger Hayes announced the sale of his company on 4 October on the business networking site LinkedIn.

“This has been a long time coming,” Hayes says. “We have been pursued by numerous companies wanting to purchase [Sierra], but Kratos makes the most sense.”

Sierra is best known for its experimental 5th Generation Aerial Target (5GAT) platform, which it describes as a “high-performance, unmanned, fighter-size aircraft” meant to represent adversary fifth-generation platforms, including with low-observability traits.

In August, Sierra won a Pentagon contract to deliver two 5GAT prototypes capable of replicating the flight characteristics of the most-advanced enemy fighter jets, such as Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57 and China’s Chengdu J-20.

“Key amongst these characteristics”, according to the Pentagon, “is size, signature and electronic-attack payloads”.

That effort will now be overseen by Kratos, which has its own line of aerial target offerings.

Hayes describes Kratos as both a competitor and a teammate to Sierra, since he and his wife Debra Hayes founded the company in 2006.

“They understand our customer base, are focused on meeting the customer expectations [and] design and build airplanes the same way [Sierra] does,” Hayes says of San Diego-headquartered Kratos.

The former Lockheed Martin Skunk Works engineer says Kratos will provide a “better foundation” for Sierra to convert the 5GAT prototype into a fully-operational programme.

Kratos confirmed the acquisition on 5 October, telling FlightGlobal that Sierra will operate as a business unit within the Kratos unmanned systems division.

“Kratos and [Sierra] have worked successfully together for years,” says Steve Fendley, president of unmanned systems at Kratos. “The agility, speed, and affordability traits inherent at [Sierra] perfectly align with the Kratos mantra.”

Fendley says Sierra and the 5GAT programme, which are currently based in the California high-desert town of Tehachapi, will benefit from access to the greater resources Kratos can provide.

The terms of sale were not disclosed.

If Sierra – now Kratos – can successfully complete that development project, the Pentagon says it anticipates a follow-on production contract “without the use of competitive procedures”. 

That prospect comes as interest in type of high-end, autonomous aircraft has reached an all-time high at the Pentagon.

Washington is seeking to acquire thousands of low-cost, pilotless aircraft in the coming years – a programme the Pentagon has dubbed the Replicator Initiative.

“Replicator is meant to help us overcome [China’s] biggest advantage, which is mass,” US deputy secretary of defence Kathleen Hicks said on 28 August. “More ships, more missiles, more people.”

XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator

Kratos is already in a strong position to capitalise on the Pentagon’s shift toward pilotless systems.

The company boasts one of the most-advanced examples of an autonomous fighter jet – the Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie – which Sierra helped design.

Both the US Air Force (USAF) and US Navy (USN) have purchased examples of Valkyrie to test the concept of teaming conventional fighters with autonomous support jets.

The USAF calls the programme Collaborative Combat Aircraft, while the navy uses the moniker Penetrating Affordable Autonomous Collaborative Killer.

The USN aims for 60% of its future carrier-based aircraft to be pilotless, according to the service’s aviation leaders, though no target date has been set to reach that goal.

Another autonomous fighter – the Boeing MQ-28 Ghost Bat – is currently in testing with the USAF. Boeing is developing that autonomous jet in partnership with the Royal Australian Air Force.

Story updated 6 October to include comments from Kratos


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