General Atomics takes the lead in DARPA's LongShot UAV Program

General Atomics announced on September 7, 2023, that it had been selected by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a drone that can be deployed from fourth-generation fighter aircraft and equipped with air-to-air missiles. The drone is part of DARPA's LongShot initiative, which aims to extend the engagement range and operational effectiveness of current fighter jets and bombers. The company is targeting the commencement of flight tests for this drone by December 2023.

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General Atomics takes the lead in DARPAs LongShot UAV Program 925 001  DARPA views LongShot, a turducken-like unmanned aircraft system, dropped from a bomber or fighter that can launch its own missiles, as potentially useful for the Air Force and Navy (Picture source: GA-ASI)

The LongShot program is a DARPA initiative aimed at developing an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) capable of engaging multiple enemy targets from safe distances using existing fourth-generation aircraft and air-to-air missiles, thereby significantly increasing their engagement range. The program seeks to capitalize on a slower-speed, fuel-efficient air vehicle for the approach while retaining highly energetic air-to-air missiles for end-of-mission engagements. This combination is expected to increase weapon effectiveness and the survivability of piloted aircraft.

General Atomics secured a contract for the third phase of the LongShot project, with a budget envelope that could reach $94 million. According to C. Mark Brinkley, the Senior Director of Strategic Communications and Marketing at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI), the company plans to launch the drone's flight tests by December 2023. Over the past three years, GA-ASI has experimented with several aerial vehicle designs to optimize their performance. The flight tests planned for the end of this year aim to validate the drone's basic handling characteristics, laying the groundwork for future development and testing phases.

DARPA views LongShot — a turducken-like unmanned aircraft system dropped from a bomber or fighter that can launch its own missiles — as potentially useful for the Air Force and Navy.

Although no official statement has been made regarding the aircraft with which the new drones will be used, renderings show the launch of an AIM-120 AMRAAM missile and an F-15 Eagle fighter jet. The drone's design has evolved significantly over the years, with the latest concept art revealing an elongated fuselage, small canards at the front, and rearward-swept main wings.

General Atomics successfully outperformed major competitors such as Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. The company is expected to receive $44 million to develop the project in 2024, with objectives including the construction of a test model, missile launch demonstrations, and integration into a fighter jet.

The LongShot program could have significant implications for both the U.S. Air Force and Navy. DARPA believes the new drones will be useful for both branches, potentially feeding into the Air Force's advanced program for collaborative combat drones and the Navy's separate program on next-generation air dominance.

General Atomics takes the lead in DARPAs LongShot UAV Program 925 002

The conceptual design for the LongShot program that General Atomics Aeronautical Systems unveiled in 2021. (Picture source: GA-ASI)