Tucked away inside the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s most recent budget proposal is a request for millions of dollars to explore what one could best describe as an unmanned flying gun capable of engaging airborne and ground-based targets. This comes around a year and a half after DARPA first announced it was working on what it called a “Flying Missile Rail.” The system would carry its own air-to-air missiles and would be launched like a drone from under the jet’s wing, after which they would fly off and engage aerial targets with their missiles.
DARPA is asking for $13.27 million in its budget request for the 2021 Fiscal Year for the flying gun effort, which it has dubbed Gunslinger. The budget documents say that this is a new program and it is in no way related to the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps program of the same name, which developed a system to detect incoming hostile gunfire.
“Gunslinger program will develop and demonstrate technologies to enable an air-launched tactical range missile system capable of multi-mission support,” the Gunslinger entry in DARPA’s budget proposal says. “This system will utilize the high maneuverability of a missile system coupled with a gun system capable of scalable effects and engagement of multiple targets.”
The section does not give any specifics as to the overall size of the weapon system DARPA is envisioning or what type or types of guns it might be capable of carrying. It also does not say what types of aircraft would be capable of carrying these gun-armed “missiles” in the future, though it says that the plan would be to ultimately transition the project to the Air Force and the Navy.
“These mission sets addressed [by Gunslinger] will include counter-insurgency (COIN) operations, close air support (CAS) and air-to-air engagements,” the budget documents add. “The program will address the system and technology issues required to enable development of a robust missile system considering (1) vehicle concepts possessing the required aerodynamic, propulsion, and payload capacity for a wide operational envelope, (2) the algorithms that support maneuvering and target recognition to enable expedited command decision making for selecting and engaging targets and (3) approaches to incorporating modularity of design to reduce cost throughout the design and development process.”
The funding that DARPA is seeking the 2021 Fiscal Year would go specifically to “trade studies, to include propulsion, munitions, sensors, GPS and communication,” as well as conceptual design work and modeling and simulating potential concepts of operation for employing the weapon system.
With a sufficiently large ammunition magazine, guns can also readily engage multiple targets and rapidly shift focus from one to another, things that a single traditional missile or bomb cannot achieve. Ammunition loads can also be tailored to specific target sets.
One possible concept of operations could involve a high-flying bomber-type aircraft, or some or form of future “arsenal plane,” launching these flying gun pods over a target area, where they could offer a more persistent and precision means of engaging targets on the ground or in the air. When it comes to close air support, U.S. Air Force bombers have increasingly been called upon to perform that mission, but lack any functional way of providing this particular kind of direct fire. It’s worth remembering that Boeing received a patent for a ventral gun system for the B-1B Bone bomber in 2018, but there has been not been any clearly articulated reason why the company pursued that project in the first place since then.