The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or known as DARPA, the US military’s top research agency, has hit another milestone in its Gremlins program, an effort to develop an unmanned aerial system to overwhelm and neutralize enemy forces.
During a DARPA-led test earlier this year, one of those drones, known as Gremlins, was successfully recovered in flight by a C-130 aircraft.
If they can perform the mission the US military has in mind, Gremlins might revolutionize warfare, helping the US ensure air superiority in a war with sophisticated adversary, such as China or Russia.
The Gremlins are coming
Launched in 2015 and named after the fictional mischievous creatures, Gremlin unmanned aerial systems are designed to be reusable and expendable.
The Pentagon wants lots of them, and it wants them to be versatile and potentially armed. DARPA envisions them working collaboratively — in a “swarm” — to take down targets. The idea is to create an unmanned air system that can work with other unmanned platforms and be retrievable while airborne.
The October test began with two X-61 Gremlins flying in formation. The Gremlin slowly approached the C-130 from below — like an F-22 Raptor fighter jet would approach a KC-135 aerial tanker — and hooked itself onto a tangling cable.
The drone was then reeled inside the C-130, marking the first time one has been successfully retrieved in flight. After inspecting the recovered Gremlin, the testers sent it on another mission within 24 hours.
DARPA conducted a total of four flights and gathered data on the Gremlins’ flight performance, interaction with the mothership, and airborne retrieval phase.
The program may still have a ways to go, as one Gremlin — presumably, the one that wasn’t recovered in flight — was destroyed.
It isn’t clear what sensors the small unmanned aerial system could carry, but some options are intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors to enhance the situational awareness of nearby aircraft or troops on the ground, and electronic-warfare jammers, to “clear” the way for airstrikes by manned aircraft.
The Gremlin can carry about 150 pounds, which will probably limit its payload to small munitions, such as the AGM-114 Hellfire missile.
Don’t feed them after midnight!
The Gremlins are the Pentagon’s response to the increased aircraft-detection, anti-aircraft, and anti-drone capabilities of near-peer adversaries.
For the past 20 years, the US military has enjoyed an uncontested air superiority against less-advanced foes. But now, as competition with capable rivals like Russia and China intensifies, air superiority would be contested throughout a conflict.
Gremlins are intended to be cheap. DARPA plans for Gremlins to be used about 20 times and to need considerably less time and expense to operate and maintain than more sophisticated manned and unmanned aircraft, which are designed to be in service for decades.
A key assumption is that Gremlins will be retrievable and thus reusable, driving down costs. Airborne recovery and launch will also increase the Gremlins’ range and increase the survivability of the motherships, as they could launch the drones from longer distances, remaining outside the anti-aircraft umbrella of an adversary.
After a Gremlin has completed its mission, it would fly to a mothership and be retrieved. Then, after a 24-hour maintenance session, it will be able to conduct another mission.
If the airborne retrieval part of the program doesn’t succeed, then DARPA and the Pentagon would have to rethink their project’s viability and goals.
A second key assumption is that the Gremlins will be able to fly in a swarm, ideally with as few motherships as possible. To achieve that swarm capability, DARPA wants to be able to launch and retrieve four Gremlins within 30 minutes. If the testers can’t achieve that, then the Gremlin program would again have to refocus and be redirected.
According to DARPA, the Gremlin program will require a “mothership,” such as a B-52 Stratofortress bomber, AC-130 Spooky gunship, MC-130 Commando II transport, F-35 Lighting II fighter, or even another remotely piloted aircraft.
The Gremlin program is only the latest by DARPA, which was created in 1958, after the Soviets beat the US into space with the Sputnik satellite.
The agency is the Pentagon’s main arm for researching and developing cutting-edge projects to maintain the US military’s technological advantage. While that advantage is being eroded by near-peer competitors, DARPA is still innovative with efforts to hunt subs, improve pilots’ dogfighting skills, deploy autonomous systems, and prepare for future subterranean warfare.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.