WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to create an air-launched drone that carries its own smaller weapons, a concept that brings to mind a lethal Russian nesting doll packed with missiles.

If successful, the new UAV — called LongShot — could allow high-value manned aircraft like fighters and bombers to hang back at standoff distances while the drone moves forward and strikes multiple targets using its own air-launched weapons.

DARPA announced Feb. 8 that it had awarded contracts to General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman for the first phase of the program, during which the companies will create preliminary designs.

“The LongShot program changes the paradigm of air combat operations by demonstrating an unmanned, air-launched vehicle capable of employing current and advanced air-to-air weapons,” said Lt. Col. Paul Calhoun, a program manager for DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “LongShot will disrupt traditional incremental weapon improvements by providing an alternative means of generating combat capability.”

Under the LongShot program, DARPA plans to explore multimodal propulsion, which the organization sees as key to the drone’s concept of operations.

“An air system using multi-modal propulsion could capitalize upon a slower speed, higher fuel-efficient air vehicle for ingress, while retaining highly energetic air-to-air missiles for endgame target engagement,” the Defense Department stated in fiscal 2021 budget material. That way, the UAV gets the benefit of being able to traverse longer ranges, while the weapons it launches have a higher probability of destroying their intended targets.

If LongShot’s development is successful, the weapon could “significantly” extend the range at which a manned aircraft can engage a target while also reducing the risk to human pilots, DARPA stated in a news release.

DARPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the value of the contracts or the future schedule of the program, although it noted in a release that companies will build and fly full-scale demonstrators during a future phase of the program. During those tests, companies will prove their LongShot UAVs are capable of controlled flight and launching weapons.

DARPA started the LongShot program in FY21, requesting $22 million to begin conceptual design work.

According to budget documents, the LongShot UAV could be either launched from an external hardpoint on a fighter or the internal bay on a bomber. Both the Air Force and Navy could be potential future customers.