bigger, faster and better armed

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On December 14, the US Air Force’s research lab released a snippet of information about a top-secret program called Mayhem, or officially, the ISR and Strike Multi-Mission Hypersonic Program.

He envisions an “air-breathing hypersonic system” capable of performing different missions and carrying different payloads – in other words, not just a hypersonic missile.

More than that is not known to the public. One of those hypersonic systems could be the SR-72 Darkstar, a drone that is touted as being able to fly faster than Mach 5 – five times the speed of sound – the minimum speed for something to be classified as hypersonic.

The SR-72 was previewed, albeit in CGI form, in a US Air Force video in November (see end of video below at 2:30 p.m. for concept preview. ).

It’s now a trend: drones are getting better armed, bigger and faster, and capable of very long range missions.

This became explicitly clear until 2021: In May, Aevum described the role of his massive Ravn X drone which is intended to launch satellites into space, before launching them into low earth orbit, a critical operation for the world. ‘US Space Force.

Drones are also increasingly used in long-range naval operations. In early December, an MQ-25 Stingray drone arrived for testing on the US aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush.

It was a landmark event: The drone successfully refueled US Navy planes, including the F-35, and could play a critical role in extending the range of planes over great distances.

The next generation of unmanned aerial vehicles will be distinct from the slower systems currently used for counterterrorism missions, reconnaissance, and in some cases suicide drone attacks – known as stray munitions.

Earlier this month, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said the United States was seeking funds for two classified drone programs in 2023.

The drones will operate alongside the F-35 stealth fighter, along with a new, highly classified fighter jet and the B-21 stealth bomber, a future long-range aircraft that will navigate at high subsonic speed.

The new drones will need to be “unique and highly capable unmanned aerial vehicles,” Kendall said.

In November 2002, an American Predator drone killed six Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen with a Hellfire missile, the first lethal use of an unmanned aircraft.

Today, unmanned planes can fly at speeds close to supersonic, making the Predator, a 1,000 kilogram aircraft with a top speed of 220 kilometers per hour, look like a biplane in comparison.

They are increasingly piloted using autonomous systems and coupled with piloted planes to multiply the strength of a combat mission.

These “Loyal Wingman” drones, developed by Boeing and the specialized American drone company Kratos, are now being developed by China, the United Kingdom, Russia, Turkey and Japan.

They’re smaller than manned fighter jets, but that could change soon.

Northrop Grumman’s Model 437, announced in September, is based on their manned stealth fighter, the Secret Model 401, while the Japanese Defense Ministry has hinted that high-performance unmanned fighters could follow its current Loyal Wingman projects.

The huge drone has a takeoff weight of almost 25,000 kg, part of a new class of very large drones.

In March, U.S. Vice Admiral James Kilby said that in the future, drones could account for nearly half of all aircraft on a given U.S. aircraft carrier.

Other drones such as the stealth X-47B – the first experimental combat drone to land on an aircraft carrier and the first drone to successfully complete aerial refueling with a tanker, are clearly influencing foreign designs.

These drones are large: the X-47B has a wingspan of 18.9 meters, six meters longer than the F / A-18 Hornet, the main carrier aircraft of the US Navy. Its takeoff weight is almost 20 times that of the Predator.

In addition, they have great endurance – the X-47B can travel almost 4,000 km on a tank of fuel.

Their increased capability – and an increasing array of roles envisioned by designers, could lead us to a future where the majority of air combat missions are unmanned.

It is still unclear whether the trend towards larger, faster UCAVs will continue – the LongShot program by U.S. research agency Darpa envisions small drones that can be launched from planes firing long-range missiles.

That said, here are some of the biggest and fastest unmanned planes that exist or are expected to be tested next year:

The SR-72 “Son of Blackbird” was inspired by the Blackbird SR-71 piloted spy plane which broke speed records in September 1974, flying from New York to London in one hour 54 minutes, at an average speed of 2 900 km / h.

The Blackbird eventually left service due to its extremely high operating costs, improved satellite reconnaissance, and the development of a high-altitude Russian jet, the MiG-31, which posed a risk to the aircraft, even at its high operational ceiling of 85,000 feet, more than twice the cruise altitude of an airliner.

The SR-72 could theoretically escape current fighter jets, entering and exiting enemy airspace at Mach 6, or six times the speed of sound.

More importantly, the new anti-satellite weapons under development could give extremely fast spy planes like the SR-72 a vital role.

Developers Lockheed Martin hope the plane can be tested in flight next year.

On December 14, a new version of the Russian SU-70 stealth drone was presented by the Novosibirsk Aircraft Production Association.

First tested on August 7, 2019, the Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik-B is a multi-purpose aircraft designed for reconnaissance and combat with unobservable or stealthy design features – in other words, it has a small radar signature, in theory making it difficult to slaughter.

According to the Russian Tass news agency, up to four S-70s could be controlled by a two-seater variant of the Su-57 fighter jet. Russia hopes the drone will enter service in 2024.

Photos of the drone near the Su-57 show that it is indeed a large aircraft, almost the size of a multi-purpose fighter jet.

Very little is known about the enormous RQ-180, but it is believed to have a wingspan of around 40 meters, almost as wide as the B-29 bomber of World War II.

This is only an estimate based on observations of aircraft observers near US Area 51 Air Force facilities and, more recently, in Philippine airspace.

The secret stealth plane is designed to fly at high altitudes over long distances and was recently shown, albeit briefly, in a video from the U.S. Air Force’s Profession of Arms Center of Excellence.

The Global Hawk was one of the first large-scale, high-altitude, long-endurance drones, entered service in 2001 with a flight range of up to 30 hours.

With a wingspan of 40 meters, it is almost nine meters wider than a WWII B-17 bomber. Its synthetic aperture radar can map 3D terrain over large areas, aided by its operational ceiling altitude of over 65,000 feet, or over 19 km.

While flying at high altitudes, the plane is heavy and made headlines in 2018 when Iran shot down an RQ-4 over the Strait of Hormuz – likely with a manufacturing SA-3 missile. Russian which can reach the upper limit of the altitude of the RQ-4.

With a stealth V-shaped “flying wing” design intended for reconnaissance and aerial combat, the Hongdu first flew in 2013 and has a wingspan of 14 meters. A scale model of the aircraft was shown at the 2021 China Airshow, with an open bomb bay and four ammunition which, according to the affiliate state World time, looked like “guided precision air-to-ground plane bombs”.

Recently on display at the 2021 Dubai Airshow, Russia’s new SU-75 Checkmate stealth fighter can carry 7400 kg of weapons, including five air-to-air missiles in an internal weapons bay, flying at speeds of up to Mach 2. This is impressive for a stealth aircraft – weapons are normally stored internally to preserve stealth characteristics, limiting ammo load.

Sukhoi says an unmanned variant is in sight, which could lower the comparative cost of the stealth system even further.

Stolen with weapons for the first time in June, the Altius massif has a wingspan of 28.5 meters. According to developers Kazan Simonov Design Bureau, the heavy twin-propeller drone would have an endurance window of 48 hours, in addition to a range of 3,500 km.

In addition to having a reconnaissance role, Russia hopes the plane – which first flew in 2016 – will also carry a set of missiles and bombs in combat.

Update: December 24, 2021, 3:00 a.m.


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