Forget your fighter jets and stealth bombers, decommission your ground attack aircraft; lay off your pilots and, with a gentle touch of a command console, switch to autonomous mode. We need as little interference from squishy human beings as possible, because unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is where the future of aerial warfare is!

Many nations have adopted one or another form of UAV for surveillance and communication, and a number of them wield drones that can actually fight. Be it using air-to-ground missiles, laser-guided bombs or even experimental air-to-air capability, most of today’s aerial missions can be performed by drones, prompting a question, how long manned military jets will last before becoming a historical curiosity. 

Not all combat drones are created equal, though. Some of them are just enhanced versions of surveillance UAVs, while others were built to be almost as capable as the most advanced jet fighters. Some have stealth capabilities and can carry an impressive array of weapons, others were designed to be as cheap and as mass-producible as possible. 

The criteria to compare them are the same, though. We want to select the most effective, the most capable and the most combat-ready of them all, therefore paying attention to the performance, endurance, armament and the current status of the program. 

If it is still in development and no prototypes were built – it is out of this list. If its capabilities are not published, there is nothing to talk about. Technology demonstrators are allowed as long as they are combat-capable, that is, you can fly them to war, not only in laboratory conditions. Operational history, of course, is a plus.

 

Honorable mention: General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper

MQ-9 Reaper (Photo: U.S. Air Force / SSgt Brian Ferguson)

While not the most advanced drone by today’s standards, it is the most widely produced, adopted and used. With numerous modifications, a dozen operators and millions of flight hours, Reaper is the poster child of the modern drone war, single handedly carrying entire armed conflicts and generating too many controversies to be counted.   

10. TAI Aksungur

TAI Aksungur

TAI Aksungur (Photo: CeeGee / Wikipedia)

Starting a parade of medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs, Aksungur is one of many answers to the Reaper. It was produced in Turkey as a further development of its smaller predecessors. While still in prototype stage, Turkish Aerospace Industries’ experience with TAI Anka shows that it is capable of producing successful combat MALE. What pushes Aksungur above many similar designs is its impressive reported endurance of 40 hours.  

9. CAIG GJ-2 / Wing Loong II

CAIG GJ-2 / Wing Loong II

Wing Loong (Image: Mztourist / Wikipedia)

Although only introduced in 2017, the export version of this Chinese drone has already proved itself in several Middle Eastern conflicts in the hands of the United Arab Emirates, while Pakistan and Egypt have purchased dozens of them too. It can carry up to 200 kilograms of laser-guided bombs and missiles, and the manufacturer claims capability to employ air-to-air armament.  

8. Altair / Altius

Altair / Altius

Altius (Photo: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation)

Although in long and turbulent development at least since 2011, this MALE UAV was revealed during its maiden flight in 2019, and is set for adoption by Russian Air Force in 2021. The manufacturer claims endurance of 48 hours and a payload of 1000 kilograms, for an aircraft that is itself larger and heavier than most of its competitors. A note should be made, as Altair is supposed to be the name of the development program and Altius the name of the aircraft itself, but those names are often mixed-up even by the manufacturer.

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