Top 10 combat drones of 2020
7. EADS Barracuda
EADS Barracuda (Photo: Gizmodo)
Threading through the realm of stealthy jet-powered combat drones is not easy: not much is known about them, and even less is certain. Barracuda was designed by Airbus as a competition to other European drone programs, and although it has neither range nor endurance of MALEs, it is more of a combat aircraft than anything above, designed to carry 300 kilograms of precision munitions in its internal bay to be dispatched at a moment’s notice before an enemy had a chance to detect the intruder. Barely anything is known about Barracuda beyond its maiden flight in 2006, and although the project may be discontinued, it definitely was the first European combat drone of its kind.
6. General Atomics Avenger
Avenger (Photo: General Atomics)
Initially named Predator C – indicating it as a successor to MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper long-endurance drones – Avenger is more of a departure, featuring a turbofan engine, internal weapon bay and stealth features. It can carry a staggering array of munitions, lift almost three tons of them (including on external hardpoints), and direct the fire at the enemy with the F-35 Lightning II’s electro-optical targeting system. The Sea Avenger should also be mentioned, supplementing the platform with a capability to be based on an aircraft carrier.
5. Northrop Grumman X-47
X-47B (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense / Wikipedia)
Although the United States had no shortage of stealth drone development programs since the 2000 – Boeing Phantom Ray, for example – land-based X-74A and its carrier-based counterpart X-74B deserve a mention for pioneering and popularizing the concept, with the X-47A’s first flight in 2003. They had quite impressive capabilities (X-47B could carry up to two tons of armament and still take off from an aircraft carrier), but were nothing more than proof-of-concept programs and are now discontinued. Nevertheless, all evidence points at the U.S. Air Force adopting some kind of their more advanced successors – possibly supersonic, possibly combat-capable, most definitely of the same flying-wing design – but not much is known about them, save for some names. X-47’s spiritual successor is most likely called RQ-180, but although it is used for surveillance at least since 2015, its combat capabilities are undisclosed.
4. Hongdu GJ-11
Hongdu GJ-11 (Photo: Sina Military)
Barely anything is known about the Chinese stealth UAV with the nickname Sharp Sword. It was first flown in 2013 and adopted by the military in 2019 or earlier. Round afterburner exhaust was replaced with low visibility exhaust in the meantime, suggesting a focus on stealth. China has boasted the drone's deep-penetration ability, suggesting spacious internal weapon bay and an ability to deliver laser-guided munitions, likely resulting in similar performance to other stealth drones of this type.
3. Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik-B
S-70 (Image: Techfiles.ru)
The first operational Russian stealth combat drone was a continuation of an earlier MiG project called “Skat”. The aircraft has a regular AL-31 turbojet engine with an unmodified nozzle, which means partial sacrifice of stealth performance. But what differentiates this UAV from other similar aircraft is its size: almost four times heavier than X-47B and considerably larger, it can carry almost three tons of armament and has an operational range of 6000 kilometers. Okhotnik is designed to function in tandem with Su-57 fifth-generation jet fighter, and is supposed to enter into service with Russian Air Force in 2024.
2. BAE Systems Taranis / Dassault nEUROn
Taranis / nEUROn (Image: BAE Systems / Dassault)
Two for one: similar in their capabilities and appearance, but developed separately by British defence company BAE Systems and a conglomerate of European manufacturers led by French Dassault respectively, these two technology demonstrators are some of the most advanced flying wing stealth UAVs. Their intended purpose was to explore a prospect of delivering up to two tonnes of well-regulated European explosives in high-threat zones and defending themselves from both ground-based and aerial adversaries. The Taranis was, at least initially, supposed to be supersonic, while nEUROn’s design has an emphasis on functioning in autonomous cooperation with manned aircraft, as a loyal wingman. Both aircraft were successfully tested, achieving the first flight in 2013 and 2012. In 2014, a contract was signed between France and the United Kingdom to combine their development into the new Future Combat Air System – a European fighter drone, which was dropped following Brexit. The name, FCAS, was later picked up by both Dassault-Airbus, and BAE-Leonardo sixth generation fighter jet programs. As of 2020, Taranis project is discontinued, while nEUROn continues to undergo testing.
1. XQ-58A Valkyrie
XQ-58A Valkyrie (Image: U.S. Department of Defense / Wikipedia)
Valkyrie is the next logical step in the evolution of UAVs – designed to serve as a support to the fighter jets relying on either direct control of its manned peers or on-board AI, it can scout the battlefield, engage the enemy and sacrifice itself to shield manned aircraft. The most impressive part of this whole ordeal is the price, as the drone is supposed to cost just $2 million apiece – on par with cruise missiles and almost nothing compared to actual fighter jets. Being almost as capable as manned fighters, but cheap and easily replaceable, allows an army to produce entire swarms of them, overwhelming any kind of enemy defence. While still in prototype testing stage, Valkyrie is expected to be put into mass production in 2021, defining a picture of future robot warfare.