The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded preliminary design contracts for its LongShot programme, a concept that envisions an air-launched unmanned air vehicle (UAV) carrying and firing multiple smaller air-to-air missiles.

Contracts were awarded to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman for preliminary Phase I design work, the research agency announced on 8 February. The value of the contracts was not announced, though DARPA requested $22 million in its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal.


Source: DARPA

Artist’s concept of DARPA’s LongShot system 

The LongShot programme aims to develop a UAV that can be carried and launched by fighter or bomber aircraft. That UAV would then fly ahead of its manned carrier and launch air-to-air missiles to shoot down enemy aircraft. DARPA believes a multi-modal system would have advantages over current air combat technologies.

“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.”

The UAV that DARPA shows in its artist’s rendering of the LongShot concept appears similar in size and shape to the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), an in-operation stealthy cruise missile. JASSM, which is made by Lockheed, has pop-out wings on its bottom side and a vertical stabiliser, however. The LongShot rendering shows pop-out wings on the topside of its fuselage and no stabiliser.

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.

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.

In later phases of the programme, DARPA says it plans to fund construction and first flight of a full-scale LongShot demonstrator. The UAV ought to be air launched and “capable of controlled flight, before, during, and after weapon ejection under operational conditions”, it says. Possible military service branch end users include the US Air Force and US Navy, says DARPA.