While most advanced unmanned drones today focus on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, it appears that pilotless fighter jets capable of dogfighting are not far off in the future.

But how close are the armed forces to having to purchase unmanned fighter jets? Moreover, are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) becoming increasingly involved in modern warfare?

Not quite far

One of the significant defense technology manufacturers in the industry, Lockheed Martin, recently announced its interest in further expanding its autonomous systems—but not to strip Air Force pilots’ jobs but rather to team up with its manned fighters.

During the Farnborough International Airshow, Lockheed Martin’s Vice President and General Manager, John Clark, told reporters that their project on expendable drones will be available “as soon as three years.” The company’s expansion project came after the rising tension between China and the US, particularly in the Pacific.

“We’re really talking about something that could be operational in the next three to four years so that our folks in the Pacific have that tool in their toolbox, should they need it,” Clark said.

Aside from its drone technology, Lockheed is currently working on the fifth generation of the F-35, the world’s most advanced combat-fighting aircraft. The F35, with a top speed of Mach 1.6, advanced sensors capable of tracking enemy targets and jamming radars, and precision-guided missiles, will most likely become the bedrock for future unmanned aircraft. Not to mention its capability to transmit data directly to the ground control centers.

At the Airshow expo, Ziv Avni, Vice President of Israel’s Elbit Systems, also discussed how today’s cutting-edge technology allows drones on the battlefield to take on the reconnaissance role that previous generations of pilots have filled.

“Everything a drone does today at some point was done by pilots,” Avni said.

He continued: “But if you look at their evolution over the last 30 or 40 years, it started off with their classical reconnaissance missions of having only electro-optical sensors, basically cameras. In the beginning, it was only day cameras. Today, we are using a lot of infrared cameras, which gives us the ability to operate at night as well. And there we are building a lot of other layers of sensors that can collect information.”

On-going UA projects

Meanwhile, Turkish drone manufacturer Baykar announced earlier in June the latest progress of its unmanned combat aircraft project, Kızılelma, aka “Red Apple,”—and shared the images from the production line prototype.

The country’s Defense Industry President, Dr. İsmail Demir, said that Kızılelma is expected to leave the hangar sometime next year along with his brother Hurjet, another advanced trainer combat aircraft made by Baykar.

Kızılelma Unmanned Fighter Jet Prototype
Baykar showcased the prototype of its unmanned fighter jet, Kızılelma, on March 12, 2022. (Image source: @Defence_IDA/Twitter)

Kızılelma is a fully autonomous aircraft that can take off and land itself. Accordingly, the aircraft has an expected cruise speed of Mach 0.6 with a ceiling operational altitude of 35,000 feet, a combat radius of 500 Nm, and a maximum takeoff weight of 6 tons.

It also is projected to have a 5-hour endurance flight capability powered by the AI-322F turbofan engine supplied by the Ukrainian aircraft engine company, Ivchenko-Progress. Its advanced features include a low-RCS supersonic airframe, the ability for high maneuverability, and a high situational awareness equipped with AESA radar.

Last September, US-based Northrop Grumman announced its new autonomous aircraft design for the next-generation wingmen drones for the Air Force, the Model 437. While there is yet a full-scale prototype of the upcoming UA, designers claimed that it will have a top speed of Mach .85, with a cruising speed of about Mach .8—giving it a capacity to “fly alongside an F-35 and hold up to 4,000 gallons of fuel.”

But not there (yet)

Defense News reported that the next generation of fighter aircraft is still in its concept stages and won’t be arriving “before the next decade at the earliest.”

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Zooming in on the Pentagon’s air combat evolution program is the DARPA Research agency, which is focusing on enhancing and incorporating artificial intelligence into war-fighting. This includes the possibility of designing a plane that can fly and fend for itself in a dogfight.

DARPA is looking forward to proceeding with its sixth-generation fighter initiative, named Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD), where they aim to create the next level version of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor as its manned fighter platform, all while supported by unmanned “Loyal Wingman” platforms.

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The US undoubtedly owns and operates the greatest number of UAVs in the world. And, with the advancement of technology, it is certainly looking to invest more in procuring this type of equipment—possibly considering automated fighter jets further into the future.

But for now, UAVs will remain pilots’ loyal wingmen in the skies.