General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman have been awarded LongShot program contracts to design a drone for air-to-air engagements.

The program is run by the US Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) and has entered preliminary Phase I design work. It is aimed at increasing the survivability of manned aircraft by increasing the distance of air-to-air engagements.

The LongShot drone, equipped with an air-breathing engine, would be launched from manned fighter jets or bombers, allowing them to stay away from enemy threats. It would then proceed to engage the enemy with its own air-to-air missiles. 

The cost of the program was not disclosed, but according to the US defense budget request for the fiscal year 2021, DARPA requested $22 million for it.

The agency has already worked on similar ideas, for example the Flying Missile Rail (FMR) concept which envisioned a fighter jet-launched drone equipped with AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles, as well as cannon-armed drone nicknamed Gunslinger. 

Although ultimately similar to the concept of loyal wingman – combat drone intended to accompany fighter jets – the LongShot has a much narrower scope, and may not be intended to carry radars, sensors or sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) systems, relying on the complete guidance from the mothership aircraft. Nevertheless, all three awarded companies have been participating in the US Air Force’s Skyborg program, although just one of them – General Atomics – was selected for its final phase.