by Rajesh Kumar Sinha

Imagine an unmanned drone, deployed by a stealth fighter jet flying at supersonic speed and launching its air-to-air missiles inside the enemy territory while the jet and its pilot remain at a safe distance, destroying many hostile targets at one go and achieving his operational objective.

Sounds straight out of a Hollywood fiction, not really. The US Department of Defence funded- LongShot project is one such project when fully developed and executed, is certain to change the existing rules of air warfare. LongShot is to bring about a new facet of role and importance of technology in air battles of the future.

Though limited information about the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s ambitious LongShot project is available in the public domain, it certainly has created a big buzz in the strategic circles. LongShot is being designed as a unique unmanned UAV while reducing the security risks to fighter pilots will have the ability to strike deep inside the hostile territory and enhance the mission effectiveness.

Explaining its proposed project, DARPA in a recent press communique “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.”

Planned with an estimated expenditure of US $22 million for the first year, the contract for creating the design work has already been placed by DARPA with three of the global defence powerhouses, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

Media reports have suggested Pentagon’s plan to develop LongShot as a “multi-mode propulsion” that could be used to take on multiple hostile targets in the air, at one go. An air-launched drone, it is likely to be deployed either from existing fighter jets externally or could form part of the bomber jets internally with the ability to fire air-to-air missiles, reaching close to the enemy targets.

In common parlance, LongShot is to be developed as an unmanned air weaponry system that is to be shot from an air force jet as a “multi-modal, multi-kill system,” while engaging more than one targets simultaneously, making it virtually impossible for an enemy fighter jet to respond adequately and effectively.

DARPA sources have indicated that plans are afoot to make the plane fly slowly at the initial stage that will save fuel and gradually pick up speed once reaching close to the target. It is likely to ensure an enhanced range for the plane while reaching the engagement zone. Once there, firing air-to-air missiles from LongShot could well increase the impact of a hit.

The importance of LongShot could be assessed in the context of the fast evolving air warfare scenario. While the US and its allies have for decades maintained their air superiority over Russia and others, the situation is changing. While the AIM-120 AMRAAM with a range of nearly 100 miles, remain the most popularly used air-to-air missile in the American arsenal, rivals like Russia and China are furiously working on enhanced ranged R-37M/Axehead and PL-15 long range air-to-air missiles with an expected range of 124 miles.

Further, the Chinese PL-15 is believed to be using the high-speed ramjet technology. Ramjet is very crucial because in addition to providing a very high speed, it also ensures that the launched missile maintains its momentum while reaching out the target. Once fully operational, they could very well alter the rules of air warfare and create an imbalance for the US and its allies in NATO. While they can hit the enemy AWACS, other support aircrafts and even tankers from a reasonable long range and create havoc, the US and NATO could be in a position to rewrite the rules of air engagement, once LongShot is ready and deployed.

Though the technology behind LongShot could only be described as contemporary, a cruise missile carrying air-to-air missile yet its concept could turn out to be very effective and formidable. A hostile enemy jet, facing an advanced USAF fighter with a couple of LongShots will find it difficult to contend since that will have to face two unmanned UAVs, as daunting as the fighter jet itself.

While the current plans only indicate LongShot to be carried on by a fighter jet, depending upon the development of the project, one cannot rule out the possibility of it being carried on by other platforms in the future. Bombers like a B-2 or the latest B-21 Raider or naval ships. One thing is certain that this work “changes the paradigm of air combat operations,” as Lt Col. Paul Calhoun, DAPRA’s LongShot project manager believes.

Rajesh Kumar Sinha is a keen defence watcher