DARPA Is Developing Aircraft-Launched Missile-Like Drones That Fire Their Own Air-To-Air Missiles

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has hired General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, to craft designs for an air-launched missile-toting air-to-air combat drone as part of a program called LongShot. In concept, a larger manned aircraft would fire this unmanned air vehicle, which could then fly to a certain area and engage multiple aerial threats with its own weapons. This, in turn, would extend the range of the launch platform and reduce its vulnerability to hostile aircraft or air defenses, among many other benefits.

DARPA announced the contract awards, the value of which has not yet been disclosed, on Feb. 8, 2021. Plans for LongShot had emerged last year in the Pentagon’s budget request for the 2021 Fiscal Year, which asked for $22 million, in total, to conduct initial work, including the development and refinement of the design for a “demonstration system.” That same request also included $13.27 million for a proposed gun-armed air-launched drone effort called Gunslinger, which you can read more about in this past War Zone story.

DARPA LongShot program aims to create a novel alternative to traditional air-to-air missiles, such as the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) seen here, that offers longer range and other additional capabilities., USAF

“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,” Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Paul Calhoun, the LongShot program manager, said in a statement. “LongShot will disrupt traditional incremental weapon improvements by providing an alternative means of generating combat capability.”

At its most basic, the idea behind LongShot is to put extra distance between the launching aircraft and the aerial threat or threats it is targeting. This increases the range at which those targets can be engaged, which also allows the launch platform to stay further away, potentially outside of the range of counterattack.

The benefits of this additional range are pretty clear cut. The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy are presently working together on a new long-range air-to-air missile, the AIM-260, which you can read about more in this War Zone piece, as a more traditional way of extending the reach of combat aircraft in aerial engagements.

However, unlike just any very-long-range air-to-air missile, LongShot offers a way to engage targets at greater distances, but only actually firing a missile much closer to the target, when the missile’s energy state will still be high. The idea is that this would give the enemy much less time to react or the ability to evade, increasing the likelihood of a kill. Though not specifically mentioned in DARPA’s discussions of the program so far, this system would also enable a single launching aircraft to engage threats from multiple vectors at once, making it even more difficult for opponents to survive an attack.

“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 entry for LongShot in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal further explained. “First, the weapon system will have a much-increased range over their legacy counterparts for transit to an engagement zone. Second, launching air-to-air missiles closer to the adversary increases energy in terminal flight, reduces reaction time, and increases probability of kill.”

The entry of LongShot from the Pentagon’s 2021 Fiscal Year budget request., DOD

If the LongShot vehicle is a stealthy design that is hard to detect, to begin with, and can be cued to the target area via an offboard platform or platforms using hard to detect low-probability of intercept data links, there is an even greater chance of the system effectively ambushing the threat or threats. Using a non-LPI/LPD data link, such as one using the popular Link 16 waveform, that goes into receive-only mode after a certain point in the flight, could also be a less complex way to keep the system “silent” in the electromagnetic spectrum. With sufficiently robust networking capabilities, the drone itself would not need to carry any complex sensors to track targets and engage targets.

DARPA’s LongShot concept art, seen at the top of this story, shows a stealthy cruise missile-like vehicle, with pop-out fins and rear-mounted air-breathing engine, firing two smaller air-to-air missiles. The concept art also shows a panel falling away, which appears to keep the LongShot’s internal weapons bay sealed until the moment of launch. This would help keep the unmanned aircraft in its most stealthy and efficient configuration until the last possible moment.

It’s interesting to note that the air-to-air missiles in the concept art appear to be examples of Lockheed Martin’s Cuda design, development of which has been long-dormant now, at least publicly. Described as a “hit-to-kill” weapon that would destroy its target by physically slamming into it instead of using a traditional explosive warhead, Cuda first emerged in the early 2010s, before effectively disappearing from the company’s marketing materials by the end of the decade. It’s not clear if this artwork is meant to reflect Lockheed Martin’s proposal, specifically. 

An artist’s conception of the Cuda missile., Lockheed Martin

Cuda is, of course, not the only small form-factor air-to-air missile that has been in development since then, either. In 2019, Raytheon unveiled its Peregrine miniature air-to-air missile and the Air Force itself has been working on other potential designs through the Small Advanced Capability Missile (SACM) and Miniature Self-Defense Munition (MSDM) programs. Both missiles are extremely agile by design.

Regardless, LongShot, combined with a smaller missile, such as Cuda, could offer expanded magazine capacity while also dramatically expanding range, as well. The drone could potentially also be able to do things a long-range missile cannot, like loiter in an area for a prolonged period of time. In doing so, the maximum use of advanced fighters’ ever farther-reaching sensors could be fully leveraged, and a single fighter could put up a combat air patrol in multiple places at one time.  

With all of this combined, LongShot sounds like it could be particularly valuable for keeping older, non-stealthy, fourth-generation jets relevant as adversaries, especially near-peer competitors, such as Russia and China, continue to develop increasingly more advanced combat aircraft, as well as longer-range air-to-air weapons and air defense systems. Larger designs, such as the Air Force’s forthcoming F-15EXs, could leverage their greater payload capacity, especially compared to stealthy fighters, to further maximize the benefits that this kind of missile-armed drone might provide.

An artist’s conception showing F-15EX jets carrying 10 AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) and two AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles., Boeing

In addition, a bomber-sized aircraft carrying a large number of these missile-laden drones could be a particularly potent combination. The Air Force itself has already suggested that its sixth-generation “fighter jet” could actually turn out to be something like a variant of the B-21 Raider stealth bomber loaded with air-to-air missiles and working together with smaller “loyal wingman” type unmanned aircraft. 

There’s also no particular reason why an advanced and fully-autonomous unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) couldn’t also launch LongShots. The Air Force, as well as the Navy, have already conducted significant UCAV development work in cooperation with companies, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, but these kinds of unmanned aircraft continue to be described vaguely as potential components of aerial fleets at some unspecified time in the future. This curious lack of active UCAV programs, at least publicly, is something The

War Zone

has explored in detail in the past. 

From the very beginning, DARPA’s LongShot effort has also felt like an extension of a curious Flying Missile Rail (FMR) program that it initiated in 2017. That project had many of the same general objectives, but also had a heavy focus on exploring advanced manufacturing and rapid prototyping concepts to help reduce the FMR’s developmental and production costs. You can read more about that program in this past War Zone piece

The cost factors would also be important for LongShot, since the vehicle being overly complex and expensive could easily undermine any benefits it might offer. These same issues apply to the development of other systems intended to be fielded in large numbers, such as swarming drones and munitions, where significant cost growth might render an entire concept impractical to employ on any useful scale. 

It’s not clear whether DARPA intends for the LongShot vehicle to be recoverable and/or reusable in any way under any circumstances. A heavily networked design could help keep costs low by eliminating the need for these drones to carry costly sensors themselves, relying instead on off-board platforms for that targeting information.

“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,” DARPA did say in its press release.

All told, it will be very interesting to learn more about the prospective LongShot designs and see how DARPA refines the proposed concepts of operation surrounding this novel air-to-air combat system in the coming months. 

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com