Forget your fighter jets and stealth bombers, decommission your ground attack aircraft; lay off your pilots and, with the gentle touch of a command console, switch to autonomous mode. We need as little involvement from squishy human beings as possible because unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are where the future of aerial warfare is at. Or is it?
Many nations have adopted one or another form of UAV for surveillance and communication, and a smaller number of them also operate drones capable of combat. Whether using air-to-ground missiles, laser-guided bombs, or (experimental) air-to-air capability, most of today’s aerial missions appear capable of being performed by drones, prompting the question of how long manned military jets might last before they potentially become a historical footnote.
Not all combat drones are created equal, however. Some of them are simply 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, while others were designed to be as cheap and as easy to mass produce as possible.
The criteria for comparing them remain consistent. Here we aim to highlight the most efficient, capable and combat-ready options, paying close attention to factors such as performance, endurance, armament and the current status of each given program.
Honorable mentions for 2024
General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper
Though not the most advanced drone by today’s standards, this is certainly the most widely produced, with over 300 units adopted and used. With numerous modifications, a dozen operators and millions of flight hours, the MQ-9 Reaper is the major success story of the modern drone war, single-handedly carrying entire armed conflicts and generating too many controversies to count. The Reaper is still racking up orders to this day: in December 2023, Canada ordered 11 MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones.
The Aarok, France’s next-generation combat UAV, is expected to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions with high-performance optronic and electromagnetic sensors.
Unveiled during the 2023 Paris Air Show by the French defense company Turgis & Gaillard, this unmanned aircraft is anticipated to become the largest combat drone ever manufactured in France, boasting an impressive 22-meter wingspan. Only time will tell if it can deliver what it promises.
10. TAI Aksungur
Starting a parade of medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs, Aksungur is one of many alternatives to the Reaper. It was produced in Turkey as a further development of smaller predecessors.
It has been in service since October 20, 2021, when it was first delivered to the Turkish Naval Forces. Other current operators include the Turkish Air Force and the Kyrgyz Border Guard in Kyrgyzstan, with a total of 12 drones being delivered as of 2023.
What gives Aksungur the edge over many similar designs is its impressive reported endurance of 50 hours.
9. The Chengdu GJ-2 / Wing Loong II
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. Pakistan and Egypt have purchased dozens of them, too.
It can carry up to 480 kilograms (kg) of laser-guided bombs and missiles, and the manufacturer claims it has the capability to deploy air-to-air armament.
Its latest version is Chengdu Wing Loong-3, which has been in service since 2022.
8. Altair / Sokol Altius
Although in long and turbulent development since 2011, this MALE UAV was revealed during its maiden flight in 2019 and was set for adoption by Russian Air Force in 2021. However, only three prototypes have been built, and no further news has emerged since.
Its manufacturer claims that it offers endurance of 24 hours and a payload of 1,000 kg – impressive for an aircraft that is larger and heavier than most of its competitors. (It should be noted that Altair is the name of the development program and Altius the name of the aircraft itself, but the two names are often mixed up, even by the manufacturer.)
7. Bayraktar Kizilema
Developed by Baykar in Turkey, the Bayraktar Kizilelma fighter is said to be an advanced UAV designed with maneuverability and stealth in mind.
It is expected to operate at a maximum altitude of 30,000 feet (about 9 kilometers), with a combat radius of 500 nautical miles and a five-hour airborne autonomy, with a payload capacity of 1,500 kg. With two prototypes already having been constructed, it is anticipated to enter service by 2025.
6. Hongdu GJ-11
Precious little is known about the Chinese stealth UAV with the nickname ‘Sharp Sword’. It was first flown in 2013 and by October 2021 was being showcased at Airshow China.
However, what is known is that the absence of a tail in its design should enhance its stealth capabilities and enable agile, high-speed maneuvers. Its internal weapons bay is said to carry over 1,800 kg of payload. According to reported specifications, it boasts a range of 2,485 miles (4,000 km) and can achieve a top speed of 621 mph (1,000 km/h).
5. Bayraktar TB2
The Bayraktar TB2 is a MALE unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) capable of conducting autonomous flight operations. Made by Turkey and primarily intended for the Turkish Armed Forces, over 600 units had been built as of 2023.
The Bayraktar drones have found application in various conflicts worldwide, including deployment by Azerbaijan in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, and by the Armed Forces of Ukraine during the Russian invasion.
Equipped with an advanced sensor package, the TB2 can effectively guide other assets such as drones and missiles to targets while remaining beyond the reach of defensive systems.
4. Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik-B
Russia’s first stealth combat drone is a continuation of an earlier MiG project called ‘Skat’. The Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik drone is powered by an AL-31 turbojet engine and is expected to fly at a top speed of 1,000 kilometers per hour, with a range of 6,000 kilometers. But what differentiates this UAV from other similar aircraft is its size: it can carry almost three tons of armament and has an operational range of 6,000 km.
Okhotnik is designed to function in tandem with the Su-57 fifth-generation jet fighter and is set to enter into service with the Russian Air Force by 2025. Currently, there are two operational prototypes of Okhotnik B.
3. XQ-58A Valkyrie
Valkyrie is the next logical step in the evolution of UAVs – designed to serve as support to fighter jets, relying on either direct control of its manned peers or onboard AI. It can scout the battlefield, engage the enemy and sacrifice itself to shield manned aircraft.
The most impressive part of this whole package is the price, as the drone is supposed to eventually cost just $2 million apiece – comparable to a cruise missile and just a tiny fraction of the cost of an actual fighter jet.
Being almost as capable as manned fighters, but with the advantage of being cheap and easily replaceable, allows an army to produce entire swarms of the type, overwhelming any kind of enemy defense. Though still currently in the prototype testing stage, Valkyrie performed its first flight back in 2023.
2. BAE Systems Taranis / Dassault nEUROn
Two for one: similar in their features and capabilities but developed separately by a British conglomerate led by defense company BAE Systems and a partnership of European manufacturers led by French Dassault Aviation respectively, these two technology demonstrators are some of the most advanced flying wing stealth UAVs.
Their intended purpose was to explore the 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 trusty wingman. Both aircraft were successfully tested, achieving their first flights in 2013 and 2012 respectively.
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. However, this was dropped following Brexit. The name FCAS was later picked up for both Dassault-Airbus and BAE-Leonardo sixth-generation fighter jet programs. As of 2020, the Taranis project appears to have been integrated into UK’s Project Tempest, while nEUROn continues to undergo testing.
1. Boeing MQ-28 Ghost Bat
Developed by Boeing Australia, the MQ-28 Ghost Bat is a UCAV that incorporates AI and will possess the capability to communicate with sixth-generation fighters and bombers.
Boasting a range exceeding 2,000 nautical miles and a combat radius of 900 miles, this Loyal Wingman will be equipped with integrated sensor packages on board to facilitate Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations, as well as tactical early warning missions and more.
The MQ-28 Ghost Bat is expected to be operational with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) during the 2024-25 timeframe, with four units already having been constructed. The United States Air Force is also considering acquiring the system.