DARPA Reveals LongShot Program to Develop Air-Launched ‘Air-to-Air Missile Carrying Drone’

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 Budget Request.

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 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.

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.

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.

DARPA’s Flying Missile Rail (FMR) Concept

The LongShot program appears to be similar to DARPA’s 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.

DARPA Flying Missile Rail (FMR) Concept
DARPA Flying Missile Rail (FMR) Concept. Image Credit: DARPA.

DARPA Gunslinger Program

DARPA has also revealed another radical program, dubbed Gunslinger, in its FY 2021 Budget Request. This program, for which DARPA is requesting $13.27 million, seeks to demonstrate a ‘gun-equipped’ air-launched tactical missile system.

“The Gunslinger program will develop and demonstrate technologies to enable an air-launched tactical range
missile system capable of multi-mission support. This system will utilize the high maneuverability of a missile system coupled with a gun system capable of scalable effects and engagement of multiple targets”, said the DARPA Budget Request statement on the program.

The mission sets addressed by the new weapon system will include counter-insurgency (COIN) operations, close air support (CAS) and air-to-air engagements. The anticipated transition partners for this effort are also the USAF and the Navy.

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