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How DARPA’s LongShot Program is Revolutionizing Air Combat with Air-Launched Air-to-Air Missile Carrying Drones

In the realm of modern aerial warfare, technological advancements are continually pushing the boundaries of what is possible. One such groundbreaking initiative is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) LongShot program, which is paving the way for a new era in air combat with its innovative approach to air-to-air missile technology. The LongShot program aims to revolutionize air combat by developing air-launched drones capable of carrying and deploying air-to-air missiles, presenting a paradigm shift in the tactics and capabilities of aerial warfare.

Importance of long-range AAMs

Long-range air-to-air missiles (AAMs) are an important component of modern air combat. One of the key benefits of these missiles is their ability to increase the standoff distance between aircraft during engagements. With a longer range, fighter aircraft can engage enemy targets at greater distances, reducing the likelihood of the aircraft being detected or targeted by the enemy’s weapons. This increased distance also allows pilots to engage enemy aircraft from beyond the range of their opponent’s weapons, reducing their own vulnerability.

Another important advantage of long-range AAMs is their ability to increase the lethality of air-to-air engagements. With a longer range, pilots have more time to track and engage enemy aircraft, increasing the probability of a successful engagement. Additionally, long-range missiles often have greater accuracy and a larger warhead, making them more effective at taking out enemy aircraft.

Long-range AAMs also provide a critical capability for air defense. With the ability to engage targets at longer ranges, these missiles can help defend against threats such as stealth aircraft and cruise missiles. In this role, long-range AAMs provide a layer of protection for friendly forces and critical infrastructure.

In recent years, the United States has fallen behind its adversaries in this area, particularly China and Russia, who have made significant progress in developing advanced long-range air-to-air missiles. While the US has developed effective short-range air-to-air missiles, such as the AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM, its long-range capabilities have not kept pace with those of its rivals.


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.


This gap in capability poses a significant threat to US air superiority in contested environments, where long-range air-to-air missiles play a critical role. As such, there is an urgent need for the US to invest in research and development of advanced long-range air-to-air missiles to ensure that it maintains a technological advantage over its adversaries in this area.


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 flying independently. 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.


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.


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: A Game-Changing Vision

DARPA’s LongShot program was born out of the recognition that the traditional methods of deploying air-to-air missiles from fighter jets are constrained by the aircraft’s limitations and the range of the missiles themselves. The program’s vision is to extend the engagement range and effectiveness of air-to-air missiles by developing an air-launched unmanned aircraft that can carry multiple missiles. These drones, acting as “loyal wingmen” to manned fighter aircraft, will be capable of flying alongside fighter jets and deploying their payloads when needed.


Empowering the Loyal Wingmen: A New Approach to Air Combat

The concept of loyal wingmen represents a revolutionary shift in air combat strategy. These unmanned aircraft, integrated with advanced AI and autonomous capabilities, will not only increase the firepower of fighter jets but also offer enhanced situational awareness and intelligence-gathering capabilities. Loyal wingmen can fly into hostile or high-risk environments, gathering crucial data and providing valuable support to the manned fighter aircraft.


Multimode propulsion refers to a propulsion system that can operate in multiple modes or settings, such as in different speed or altitude regimes. In the context of the LongShot program, a weapon system using multimode propulsion would be able to adapt to different scenarios and engage enemy air threats at significantly greater ranges than current systems.


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.


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.”


Extended Engagement Range and Tactical Flexibility

By deploying air-launched drones carrying air-to-air missiles, the LongShot program extends the engagement range of fighter jets, enabling them to target adversaries from a safer distance. This enhanced reach allows pilots to engage threats from a position of advantage, reducing their own vulnerability to enemy counterattacks.

Furthermore, loyal wingmen can carry a mix of different types of missiles, providing tactical flexibility during aerial engagements. This ability to adapt to dynamic combat situations is a game-changer, giving pilots a strategic edge over adversaries.

Enhanced Aerial Superiority and Force Multiplier

The integration of air-launched drones into air combat operations acts as a force multiplier, significantly enhancing the capabilities of a fighter squadron. With loyal wingmen providing additional firepower and support, a single manned fighter jet can effectively engage multiple threats simultaneously, improving the overall aerial superiority of the force.


LongShot program

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 Awards

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.”


In a recent press release (March 2023), GA-ASI announced that it will continue to provide advanced concepts and capabilities to support the LongShot program. This is a significant development for the program, as GA-ASI’s expertise in unmanned systems technology is expected to be instrumental in the development of the new air-launched drone.


After a successful Preliminary Design Review (PDR) in February 2022 at the end of Phase 1, GA-ASI was selected by DARPA to continue into Phase 2 in March 2022. During Phase 2, detailed designs are being completed and ground tests conducted to decrease program risk.


A key test event completed early in Phase 2 was multi-body wind tunnel test, characterizing the LongShot air vehicle and air-to-air weapon separation. Critical Design Review (CDR) for the program is planned for early 2023, which will complete the Phase 2 portion of the program. GA-ASI is currently generating a proposal response for the third phase of the program.


Enters Third Phase

General Atomics has been awarded the $95 million phase 3 contract to develop and flight test a prototype of the air-launched armed drone. The contract was announced on July 13, 2023.

The phase 3 contract will allow General Atomics to build and flight test a prototype of the LongShot drone. The flight tests are scheduled to take place in 2024. If successful, the LongShot drone could be deployed by the US military in the early 2030s.

An affiliate of General Atomics has been awarded an $82.6 million contract to progress to the next phase of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program. This program is focused on developing an unmanned system capable of using multiple air-to-air weapons. DARPA is providing $24.5 million in research and development funds for the LongShot Phase III award to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. The contract work is anticipated to be completed by October 2025. The contract is cost-plus-fixed-fee and does not encompass unused options.

The program involves General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, all of which were initially awarded contracts in February 2021 for preliminary design work. General Atomics was selected by DARPA in March 2022 to proceed with the second phase, which included detailed designs and ground tests following a preliminary design review. General Atomics has stated that upcoming program activities will involve manufacturing and conducting fly-testing for the LongShot UAV prototype.

Overall, the LongShot program represents an exciting development in the field of air combat. With GA-ASI’s support, DARPA is well-positioned to achieve its goal of developing a new air-launched drone with extended range and improved weapon effectiveness. The success of this program could have far-reaching implications for the future of air combat and the defense industry as a whole.

The LongShot program is expected to have a significant impact on the future of air combat. By developing a drone with extended range and improved weapon effectiveness, DARPA hopes to significantly increase engagement range and weapon effectiveness against adversary air threats. The program’s success could potentially revolutionize air combat and give the United States a significant advantage over its adversaries.

Challenges and Future Prospects

As with any cutting-edge technology, the LongShot program faces several challenges. Ensuring seamless integration and communication between manned fighter jets and loyal wingmen will require sophisticated coordination and advanced networking capabilities. Additionally, the development of AI and autonomous systems that can operate effectively in complex combat environments is a significant undertaking.

However, the benefits offered by the LongShot program far outweigh the challenges. By revolutionizing air combat with air-launched air-to-air missile carrying drones, DARPA is shaping the future of aerial warfare. The LongShot program promises to elevate the capabilities of fighter aircraft, increase operational flexibility, and enhance the safety and efficiency of air combat missions.

As research and development continue, we can anticipate even greater advancements in loyal wingmen technology, leading to a new era of aerial superiority and strategic dominance. With the LongShot program at the forefront of innovation, the skies above the battlefield are destined to become safer, more sophisticated, and more effective than ever before.

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