The successful deployment of armed drones has led the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, or DARPA, to take a closer look at areas of improvement. This review entails overcoming three primary challenges: range, recoverability, and costs.
At the risk of oversimplifying, military drones have two primary purposes – dropping bombs and collecting information. The problem is that accommodating larger payloads for either operation means using a bigger and more expensive drone like a Reaper or Predator. On average, these run about $4 million each and their size makes them large enough to detect and small and slow enough to bring down. Pentagon officials have reluctantly admitted that enemy success rates against drones are steadily improving.
The potential solution is DARPA’s Gremlin program for launching and recovering a fleet of smaller drones from larger aircraft like a C-130 typically used by airborne units. In theory, these Gremlin drones could carry 60-pound payloads up to 300 miles.
Primarily targeted for ISR or Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance missions, these smaller drones could probe enemy air defense systems for up to an hour before returning to the C-130. And if they didn’t return, the cost would be comparatively mild. The ability to control the drones from the host vehicle also offers operational flexibility and allows shifting between manned and unmanned strategies. Drones have already been launched from an F-16 fighter jet and military helicopters.
It’s hoped that similar capabilities will be available with F-35 and F-22 fighter jets.
A member of the Gremlins fleet should last for 20 missions. A launch and recovery demonstration is expected by 2019.