LongShot Unmanned Air Vehicle

Artist’s concepts of LongShot UAV.

DARPA Initiates Design of LongShot Unmanned Air Vehicle

Program seeks to significantly increase engagement range and effectiveness of air-to-air weapons.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to create an air-launched drone that carries its own smaller weapons, a concept that brings to mind a lethal Russian nesting doll packed with missiles.

If successful, the new UAV — called LongShot — could allow high-value manned aircraft like fighters and bombers to hang back at standoff distances while the drone moves forward and strikes multiple targets using its own air-launched weapons.

DARPA announced Feb. 8 that it had awarded contracts to General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman for the first phase of the program, during which the companies will create preliminary designs.

DARPA’s LongShot program, which is developing an air-launched unmanned air vehicle (UAV) with the ability to employ multiple air-to-air weapons, has awarded contracts to General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman for preliminary Phase I design work. The objective is to develop a novel UAV that can significantly extend engagement ranges, increase mission effectiveness, and reduce the risk to manned aircraft.

Current air superiority concepts rely on advanced manned fighter aircraft to provide a penetrating counter air capability to effectively deliver weapons. It is envisioned that LongShot will increase the survivability of manned platforms by allowing them to be at standoff ranges far away from enemy threats, while an air-launched LongShot UAV efficiently closes the gap to take more effective missile shots.

U.S., NATO, and Japanese air forces have dominated the skies since the end of the Cold War, but a new generation of Russian and Chinese fighters and missiles are quickly changing the playing field. Russia and China are both working on a new series of very long-range air-to-air missiles, including the Chinese PL-15 and the Russian R-37M (NATO code name: “Axehead”), which are designed to lock onto and shoot down enemy aircraft before they get into missile range.

The West is in danger of losing this range battle. The AIM-120 AMRAAM radar-guided missile, which is the primary air-to-air missile the U.S. and its allies use, has an effective range of about 100 miles. But Russia’s Axehead missile has an estimated range of about 124 miles, while China’s PL-15 has roughly the same range and reportedly uses a high-speed ramjet.

Most modern rocket-powered missiles tend to coast at the outer edge of their range, as the rocket fuel has already been expended. In addition to providing speed, a ramjet also ensures that a missile doesn’t start slowing down at maximum range.

This means Russian or Chinese fighters have the capability to shoot first against a non-stealthy Western or Japanese adversary. In a business where the pilot who shoots first usually wins, this is a huge advantage. It also means both countries can target tankers, AWACs control planes, and other support aircraft at very long ranges, forcing them to operate even farther from the air battle and making them less useful.

Imagine a brand new U.S. Air Force F-15EX fighter jet. Even though it’s armed with over a dozen AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, it could still be out-ranged by a Chengdu J-20 fighter armed with PL-15 missiles. Now, imagine the F-15EX instead equipped with two Longshot UAVs, each armed with a pair of AMRAAM missiles.

The F-15EX could launch its LongShots, which would then close with the enemy, while hanging back to both direct the drones and take evasive action against incoming missiles. The J-20 suddenly has to contend with not one F-15EX, but two LongShot drones, each as dangerous as a real crewed fighter. The F-15EX’s likelihood of surviving the engagement increases considerably, while the J-20’s decreases.

LongShot is currently meant for fighter jets to carry it, but the big question is whether or not other platforms could use it, too. A LongShot that’s svelte enough to fit inside a bomb bay of a B-2 or upcoming B-21 Raider bomber could turn the stealth bomber into a formidable, long-range air-to-air weapon system.

LongShot is still a long way from flying, and DARPA hasn’t given an estimated date of the first flight. But there’s nothing all that revolutionary about the technology—it’s basically a cruise missile armed with air-to-air missiles.

Once DARPA successfully demonstrates the concept, the agency will hand it off to one of the armed services, like the Air Force, for final development and fielding. And then the work of America’s adversaries will get a whole lot harder.

The drone (or one of its descendants) could conceivably be launched from land, or even from warships at sea. U.S. air power could pop up in the most unlikely of places, frustrating the enemy’s plans.

But LongShot could change everything.

Like DARPA’s Gremlin drones that are currently under development, the LongShot program is hoped to result in an unmanned drone that can help keep valuable aircraft and their pilots out of harm’s way. This forms part of the US military’s strategy to supplement its fleets of combat aircraft with unmanned systems, with the Gremlin drone, which is designed to carry a suite of sensors, inching closer to airborne launches and retrieval after several years testing.

“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,” said DARPA program manager Lt. Col. Paul Calhoun. “LongShot will disrupt traditional incremental weapon improvements by providing an alternative means of generating combat capability.”

Under the LongShot program, DARPA plans to explore multimodal propulsion, which the organization sees as key to the drone’s concept of operations.

“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 engagement,” the Defense Department stated in fiscal 2021 budget material. That way, the UAV gets the benefit of being able to traverse longer ranges, while the weapons it launches have a higher probability of destroying their intended targets.

DARPA started the LongShot program in FY21, requesting $22 million to begin conceptual design work.

According to budget documents, the LongShot UAV could be either launched from an external hardpoint on a fighter or the internal bay on a bomber. Both the Air Force and Navy could be potential future customers.

If LongShot’s development is successful, the weapon could “significantly” extend the range at which a manned aircraft can engage a target while also reducing the risk to human pilots, DARPA stated in a news release.

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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