The use of drones has changed the way the U.S. and its competitors conduct combat operations. Yet despite the broad capabilities touted by America’s varied drone aircraft, some combat operations remain too complex for the pilotless planes. For years, air-to-air engagements were among those operations best left to manned aircraft. But a recent announcement from the U.S. Air Force seems to suggest those days might be numbered.
According to reports, last year, a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone successfully engaged another smaller drone using an air-to-air missile in training. The missile type hasn’t been disclosed (most likely the FIM-92 Stinger missile), but officials have referred to it as “heat seeking.”
“Something that’s unclassified but not well-known, we recently in November … launched an air-to-air missile against a maneuvering target that scored a direct hit,” Col. Julian Cheater, commander of the 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, told the media this week. “It was an MQ-9 versus a drone with a heat-seeking air-to-air missile, and it was direct hit during a test.”
This successful test engagement doesn’t necessarily mean drones could soon replace fighter pilots in more complex air intercepts. It does, however, mark an important step toward using drones for broader and more complex missions. More importantly in the short term, it also means armed combat drones may soon be equipped to better defend themselves against threats posed by manned aircraft in contested airspace. It stands to reason that if an MQ-9 can successfully engage a highly maneuverable drone, it could also engage enemy aircraft when left with no other alternative.
“We develop those tactics, techniques and procedures to make us survivable in those types of environments and, if we do this correctly, we can survive against some serious threats against normal air players out there,” Cheater said. “We will go participate in ‘Red Flag’ exercises, and we will drop weapons in testing environments to make sure that we can fight against those type of adversaries.”
The U.S. Navy recently awarded a contract to Boeing to produce the new MQ-25 Stingray, an unmanned refueler drone meant for carrier operations. Boeing’s Stingray platform was based on a previous program being developed for the Navy that was instead focused on offering stealthy combat capabilities to the carrier fleet. It’s reasonable, then, that the MQ-25 could soon find itself armed as well, serving as the Navy’s first armed, carrier-based drone. If the MQ-9 Reaper has been able to successfully integrate air-to-air weapons systems, the MQ-25 could soon follow—in a sense, the Navy would be getting two capabilities for the price of one.
Even if the United States begin fielding more drones with air-to-air weapons on board, it remains unlikely that we’ll see them conducting air policing or intercept missions any time soon. Drones remain a bit too sluggish to successfully engage in dog fighting, though thanks to long-range weapons platforms and sensor arrays, some contend that the days of dogfighting to attain air dominance are over, anyway.
Who knows, the future of our skies may indeed belong to robots after all.