The US has fallen behind adversaries in developing long range Air to Aor missiles. While US Air Force had awarded a half-billion-dollar contract to Raytheon for long range air-to-air missile, capable of hitting enemy planes from 100 miles (160 kilometers) away. But China’s latest offering, the PL-15, and another Chinese air-to-air weapon in development, provisionally known as PL-XX, would strike slow-moving airborne warning and control systems, the flying neural centers of US air warfare, from as far away as 300 miles. DARPA has been trying multiple concepts and technologies to get over this capability gap.
DARPA unveiled its Flying Missile Rail (FMR) concept revealed in 2017. The FMR concept is a self-propelled air vehicle, carrying a pair of AIM-120 AMRAAM medium-range air-to-air missiles, that can be underslung on the underwing hardpoint of a fighter aircraft such as U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons and Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets. The FMR can launch the installed AIM-120 missiles while captive to the host aircraft or while flying on its own. The system, that could fly at Mach 0.9 for up to 20 minutes once released from the host aircraft, can extend the range of the missiles.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has revealed a new program, dubbed LongShot, to develop an air-launched drone that can carry multiple air-to-air-missiles, in its Fiscal Year 2021. According to DARPA, the agency seeks to develop an air vehicle that can be deployed from existing fighter jets or bombers and can carry air-to-air missiles (AAMs) to effectively engage multiple adversary air threats at longer ranges.
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.
The LongShot program appears to be similar to the Flying Missile Rail (FMR), however did not had requirement of multimode propulsion. “The goal of the LongShot program is to develop and flight demonstrate a weapon system using multi-mode propulsion that significantly increases engagement range and weapon effectiveness against adversary air threat”, said the DARPA Budget Request statement on the program.
“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,” said the research agency in its FY2021 budget proposal. There are two key benefits to this method, DARPA says. “First, the weapon system will have a much-increased range over their legacy counterparts for transit to an engagement zone,” it says. “Second, launching air-to-air missiles closer to the adversary increases energy in terminal flight, reduces reaction time, and increases probability of kill.”
It is not clear how many air-to-air missiles LongShot would carry, though the number is at least two. The research agency wants an “air-launched vehicle capable of employing current and advanced air-to-air weapons”, says DARPA programme manager Lieutenant Colonel Paul Calhoun.
“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 Lt. Col. Paul Calhoun, a program manager for DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “LongShot will disrupt traditional incremental weapon improvements by providing an alternative means of generating combat capability.”
The 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 air vehicle, to be developed under the LongShot program, can be deployed either externally from existing fighter jets or internally from existing bombers.
This dual approach provides several key benefits, which ultimately increase weapon effectiveness. First, the weapon system will have a much-increased range over their legacy counterparts for transit to an engagement zone. Second, launching AAMs closer to the adversary increases energy in terminal flight, reduces reaction time, and increases the probability of kill.
DARPA has not said whether it intends to recover the LongShot UAV or whether it would be disposable. Some similar attritable UAVs in development and target drones come with parachutes instead of landing gear. Target drones with parachutes are sometimes designed to land on a crushable cone in their nose.
The program will explore new engagement concepts for multi-modal, multi-kill systems that can engage more than one target and will also evaluate other applications of multi-mode propulsion. Potential transition partners for the LongShot effort are the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force (USAF). DARPA is requesting $22 million for the program in its 2021 budget request.
FY 2021 plans for the LongShot program includes:
• Initiate the conceptual design of the vehicle and begin operational analysis showing the mission utility of performer design approaches.
• Conduct system requirements review of the demonstration system.
• Complete preliminary design of the demonstration system and conduct preliminary design review.
• Conduct risk reduction studies in support of design activity.
• Mature operational analysis showing the mission utility of performer design approaches.
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’s 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.
“Our collaboration with DARPA is the critical first step in the development of innovative operational concepts and solutions that will enhance our warfighter’s combat capability against a rapidly growing threat,” Jaime Engdahl, Program Director for Kinetic Weapons and Emerging Capabilities at Northrop Grumman, said in a statement. “The LongShot program enables us to combine our digital engineering skillset with our extensive knowledge in advanced technology weapons, autonomous systems, and strike platforms to increase weapon range and effectiveness.”