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
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 (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
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
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.
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.