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Northrop Grumman LongShot photo

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By Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven

(Washington, DC) An Air Force F-35 was able to destroy multiple enemy fighters in a single engagement while remaining unseen and unharmed in the service’s Red Flag exercise as far back as several years ago due to one simple reason: sensing and targeting range. These factors are a fundamental, if even self-evident, premise of the F-35 stealth fighter. Good sensing and targeting range are the tactical intention to see and destroy an enemy or group of enemies while remaining undetected. In essence, “see” the enemy before you are yourself “seen.”

In the case of the F-35, this is accomplished through an intricate and carefully configured system of integrated sensors, including a Distributed Aperture System 360-degree camera array and long range electro-optical targeting technologies, among other things. A new generation of sensors, informed and strengthened by advanced automation and computer algorithms, could be seen as a defining element of the F-35, as it is a technical margin of difference which has repeatedly proven itself in wargames, training operations and tactical exercises.

Therefore, given the obvious value of attack range, it comes as no surprise that the Pentagon is again seeking to change the paradigm for air-to-air attack ranges with a new program called LongShot. It is a DARPA initiative, now involving Lockheed, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics, which seeks to engineer a new drone platform armed with an entirely new generation of long-range air-to-air attack weapons capability.

“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, said in a statement. “LongShot will disrupt traditional incremental weapon improvements by providing an alternative means of generating combat capability.”

In later phases of the program, LongShot will construct and fly a full-scale air-launched demonstration system capable of controlled flight, before, during, and after weapon ejection under operational conditions, DARPA writes in the statement.

It is not exactly clear just how far along this program is, as it may be at the conceptual level or amid early simulation and engineering efforts. There may even be some demonstrators or notional prototypes, given the massive tactical advantage provided by a forward-operating armed drone. Of course, such a platform keeps manned fighters at safer standoff ranges and also launches offensive attacks in extremely high-risk areas under incoming enemy fire.

The prospect of new drone-fired air-to-air weapons, such as those being introduced in DARPA’s LongShot effort, also raise impactful tactical questions regarding the nature of air warfare moving into future decades.

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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.

“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” RF 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.

Northrop Grumman’s statement on LongShot development might offer an early clue regarding ongoing developmental efforts, as it makes reference to digital engineering, an advanced and very elaborate method of replicating weapons systems’ performance to assess and analyze variables such as design specs, weapons performance and even targeting precision. Digital engineering relies upon advanced computer modeling, simulation and next-generation algorithms to make detailed assessments without needing to actually “bend metal” and construct prototypes. These techniques, used to great effect in major systems such as the new sixth-generation fighter and Northrop new ICBM, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.

“The LongShot program enables us to combine our digital engineering skill set with our extensive knowledge in advanced technology weapons, autonomous systems and strike platforms to increase weapon range,” Jaime Engdahl, program director, kinetic weapons and emerging capabilities, Northrop Grumman, said in a company statement.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

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.

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