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Pentagon Seeks Air-Launched Drone With Air-to-Air Missiles

DARPA envisages extending the range and effectiveness of current manned aircraft by attaching an armed unmanned aerial vehicle to it.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has contracted General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman to work on the preliminary design of an air-launched armed drone system capable of firing multiple air-to-air missiles (AAMs).

DARPA’s LongShot Program envisages extending the range and effectiveness of current manned aircraft by attaching an armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to it, the agency wrote in a statement.

Releasing an armed drone against a target while airborne, the aircraft can fly at a safer distance out of the range of enemy weapons.

Multiple AAMs for Multiple Targets

Having multiple AAMs at its disposal, the to-be-designed UAV will also be capable of engaging multiple targets at the same time.

“The LongShot program changes the paradigm of air combat operations by demonstrating an unmanned, air-launched vehicle capable of employing current and advanced air-to-air weapons,” DARPA program manager Lt. Col. Paul Calhoun said. 

“LongShot will disrupt traditional incremental weapon improvements by providing an alternative means of generating combat capability.”

Higher Kill Rate

The program allows the drone to be deployed either internally from a bomber or externally from a fighter jet. Not much has been revealed about the type of drone to be developed or used for the system, however.

“An air system using multi-modal propulsion could capitalize upon a slower speed, higher fuel-efficient air vehicle for ingress while retaining highly energetic air-to-air missiles for endgame target engagements,” the DARPA Budget Request for the 2021 Fiscal Year said regarding the program.

If deployed from a closer range to the target, AAMs enjoy a higher “energy in terminal flight,” giving the adversary less time to react, and hence increases the probability of eliminating the target, the agency added in its $22 million request for the program.

AAMs Race

The US is currently developing the AIM-260 AAM in response to the Chinese PL-15, which outranges the venerable AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM, currently in deployment by the US Air Force and US Navy. 

The LongShot Program, if successful, adds another dimension to the arms race by allowing the missile to be launched from a closer range to the target compared to a legacy platform.

Meanwhile, DARPA has not disclosed the value of the contract it has awarded to the three defense firms.

It further said that in “later phases of the program, LongShot will construct and fly a full-scale air-launched demonstration system capable of controlled flight before, during, and after weapon ejection under operational conditions.”

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