The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency could demonstrate within two to three years a new unmanned aircraft designed to provide aerial cover for troops in close proximity to enemy forces.
Proposals from industry are requested by DARPA by 21 February to demonstrate in 2012 or 2013 an unmanned component for a next-generation close air support system. The complete system may eventually assume a role now traditionally served by the Fairchild A-10 and other manned fighters, such as the Boeing F/A-18 and Lockheed Martin F-16.
More recently, armed unmanned air systems, including the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, have performed close air support missions, firing missiles on enemy forces in contact with friendly troops in addition to their surveillance roles.
DARPA's solicitation, dated 29 January, seeks both purpose-built unmanned systems for close air support, as well as unmanned versions of manned fighters, including the "QF-4, QF-16 and UA-10". The QF-4 and QF-16 designates target drone versions of the original fighters, while the UA-10 is presumably a reference to an unmanned version of the A-10.
DARPA has set different performance requirements for unmanned versions. An unmanned variant of the A-10 would have to demonstrate comparable endurance to the manned version, while a purpose-built UAS would have to equal the persistence of the MQ-1 or MQ-9.
The payload of weapons and sensors sought by DARPA is comparable with the MQ-9, with only 907-2,270kg (2,000-5,000lb) requested. The aircraft, however, should have more agility than the Reaper.
DARPA has asked for high subsonic speed greater than Mach 0.65 and capable of manoeuvres imposing higher than 3g pressure on the airframe.
The US Air Force has committed to making unmanned aircraft a regular part of close air support operations. In the USAF "Flight Plan" for UAS, the next-generation MQ-X aircraft is expected to perform the CAS role, in addition to several missions also performed now by the MQ-9.