The US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected aerospace giants Lockheed Martin, General Atomics, and Northrop Grumman as prime contractors to design an air-launched combat drone under its LongShot program.

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Over the years, Lockheed along with Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and General Atomics has partnered with the US military in providing them with the most advanced assets.

Under the LongShot program, these companies are required to work on a concept, in which a larger manned aircraft would fire a drone, which could then fly to a specified area and engage multiple threats on its own with the weapons on board, according to The Drive.

The purpose of developing an air-launched air-to-air combat drone under the LongShot program is to extend the range of the launch platform, while also reducing its vulnerability to hostile aircraft or air defenses.

DARPA, which is a research and development agency under the US Department of Defense, announced the contract awards on February 8.

“The LongShot program changes the paradigm of air combat operations by demonstrating an unmanned, air-launched vehicle capable of employing current and advanced air-to-air weapons,” DARPA program manager Lt. Col. Paul Calhoun was quoted as saying.

“LongShot will disrupt traditional incremental weapon improvements by providing an alternative means of generating combat capability,” he added.

According to DARPA, the current air superiority concepts have been based on an advanced fighter jet providing a penetrating counter-air capability to effectively deliver weapons.

The LongShot program has been structured in such a manner that it increases the survivability of manned platforms by enabling them to stay away or at standoff range, far away from the threat of enemies.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie UAV of the US Air Force

This ensures their safety while the LongShot air-to-air combat drone takes on the enemy forces by engaging them and taking more effective missile shots at a closer range.

Plans for the development of the drones under the LongShot program were included in the Pentagon’s budget request for the 2021 fiscal year.

It had asked for a sum of $22 million in total to start the initial work, including the development and refinement of the design for a “demonstration system”.

The request also included a sum of $13.27 million, meant for a proposed gun-armed air-launched drone effort called ‘Gunslinger’.

The LongShot program is aimed at creating an extra distance between the launching aircraft and the aerial threat or enemy threats that are being targeted.

With the help of these combat drones, the missions can be a lot more flexible due to the increased range at which the targets can be engaged.

This will, in turn, allow the launch platforms to stay outside the range of a potential counterattack, and let the drones fight some battles for it.

The additional range provided by the drones in the missions will be of huge significance for the US military.

Currently, the US Air Force and the Navy are working together on a new long-range air-to-air missile called the AIM-260. It is considered a more traditional means of extending the reach of combat aircraft during missions.

Developed by Lockheed Martin, the AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile (JATM) is a beyond-visual-range, air-to-air weapon that has been designed to address advanced threats.

The US Air Force and Navy have been secretly developing the missile to replace the AIM-120 AMRAAM, which is currently in the service.

The initial launch platforms for the missiles are expected to be US Air Force’s stealthy F-22 Raptors and the US Navy’s F/A-18E/F. However, there are also plans of integrating it with the Lockheed F-35 stealth fighters at a later stage.

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