The prospect of new drone-fired air-to-air weapons, such as those being introduced in DARPA’s LongShot effort, raise impactful tactical questions regarding the nature of air warfare moving into future decades.
The DARPA program is invested in engineering a new kind of aerial attack drone configured such that it can integrate a new generation of air-to-air weapons potentially changing or at least impacting existing aerial warfare paradigms. The Pentagon’s DARPA just awarded LongShot development deals to Northrop Grumman, Lockheed and General Atomics to explore concepts, computer modeling and design options for a new air-attack platform.
“Current air superiority concepts rely on advanced manned fighter aircraft to provide a penetrating counter air capability to effectively deliver weapons. It is 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,” DARPA writes in a statement on the program.
What kinds of technologies and air-attack systems are likely to characterize future warfare in the skies? Clearly the intent of the DARPA program, which is early on and primarily in a conceptual phase, is to break existing technical barriers and architect weapons which advance the attack envelope well beyond simply upgrading existing weapons. This sets the bar quite high, given that the current state of upgraded air-to-air weapons is increasingly more advanced. The AIM-9X, for example, has been upgraded to accommodate what’s called “off-boresight” targeting wherein a missile can engage a target to the side or even behind the aircraft it launches from. Off boresight capable AIM-9X missiles are now arming F-35s, bringing a new ability to fire course-changing air-to-air weapons at angles beyond direct line-of-sight.
Weapons upgrades to the F-22 as well, brought to fruition through a Lockheed software upgrade called 3.2b, brings new upgrades to the AIM-9X and AIM-120D. Raytheon data explains that a Block 2 AIM-9X variant also adds a redesigned fuze, new datalink to support beyond visual range engagements, improved electronics and a digital ignition safety device.
Another part of the weapons upgrade includes engineering the F-22 to fire the AIM-120D, a beyond visual range Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), designed for all weather day-and-night attacks. It is a “fire and forget” missile with active transmit radar guidance, Raytheon data states. The AIM-120D is built with upgrades to previous AMRAAM missiles by increasing attack range, improving seeker guidance GPS navigation, inertial measurement units and a two-way data link, Raytheon statements explain.
Air-to-Air weapons are also being upgraded with new “countermeasures” to, among other things, enable guidance systems to stay locked on target even in a “jamming” environment. For example, adversaries are increasingly engineering electronic warfare weapons intended to find and “jam” radio frequency or infrared targeting technologies used in air-to-air weapons. Technical efforts to “counter” the countermeasures with frequency-hopping adaptations can enable electronically guided weapons to sustain a precision trajectory despite enemy jamming attempts.
These kinds of innovations might, at least initially, be providing a technical baseline from which new weapons can be envisioned, developed and ultimately engineered. The new air-to-air weapons intended for LongShot will most likely not only be much longer range but also operate with hardened guidance systems, flexible flight trajectories, advanced countermeasures, a wider range of fuze options and newer kinds of explosives as well.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.