DARPA's LongShot program, which is developing an air-launched unmanned air vehicle (UAV) with the ability to employ multiple air-to-air weapons, 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.

DARPA, the Pentagon's cutting-edge research and development branch, is looking to develop an air-launched drone with air-to-air missiles.

Fighter jets will carry the drones to extend their reach.

Will the drone be carried by other platforms, including bombers and ships?

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s research and development wing, is developing an air-launched drone that will carry air-to-air missiles.

Fighter jets will carry the drone, which will allow the planes to reach out and touch targets far beyond the range of existing missiles. The prospect of such a drone opens up a world of possibilities, including launching the drone from other military aircraft, ships, and even land.

DARPA awarded Phase I design work contracts for the “Project LongShot” program to General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. 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,” DARPA said in a press release.

U.S., NATO, and Japanese air forces have dominated the skies since the end of the Cold War, but a new generation of Russian and Chinese fighters and missiles are quickly changing the playing field. Russia and China are both working on a new series of very long-range air-to-air missiles, including the Chinese PL-15 and the Russian R-37M (NATO code name:“Axehead”), which are designed to lock onto and shoot down enemy aircraft before they get into missile range.

The West is in danger of losing this range battle. The AIM-120 AMRAAM radar-guided missile, which is the primary air-to-air missile the U.S. and its allies use, has an effective range of about 100 miles. But Russia’s Axehead missile has an estimated range of about 124 miles, while China’s PL-15 has roughly the same range and reportedly uses a high-speed ramjet.

Most modern rocket-powered missiles tend to coast at the outer edge of their range, as the rocket fuel has already been expended. In addition to providing speed, a ramjet also ensures that a missile doesn’t start slowing down at maximum range.

This means Russian or Chinese fighters have the capability to shoot first against a non-stealthy Western or Japanese adversary. In a business where the pilot who shoots first usually wins, this is a huge advantage. It also means both countries can target tankers, AWACs control planes, and other support aircraft at very long ranges, forcing them to operate even farther from the air battle and making them less useful.

But LongShot could change everything.