A guide to the Gambit family of military drones and their unique jobs
On September 19, defense giant General Atomics unveiled four related drone concepts, all under the family name of Gambit. The program was first announced in March. It aims to make use of uncrewed design and allow multiple aircraft to be built around one core. Drones based on the Gambit Core would then join fighter wings and missions, under the direction of human pilots in F-35s or newer fighters, all working towards the same end.
The heart is the Gambit ,, according to General Atomics. It consists of a single set Gambit Core that contains a single set hardware: landing gear and baseline avionics, as well as other essential functions. A common Gambit Core accounts for roughly 70 percent of the price among the various models, providing an economy of scale to help lower costs, increase interoperability, and enhance or accelerate the development of variants.”
General Atomics made the explicit comparison in its announcement to the assembly-line style of automotive manufacturing, in which both luxury sedans as well as family economy models start at the same base and then diverge only later in production. Gambit is positioned as a collection of useful drones. It will have four versions and can be expanded as production develops.
Common core for four
The four initial Gambit models as presented come with sketchpad-style illustrations. General Atomics stated that each model would have a number and each model would have a focus. They will allow the military drones to be used for everything, from reconnaissance to combat to advanced training to stealthy missions.
This is a surveillance and scout drone. This scout Gambit will take the core package and add “high aspect wings and a fuel-optimized engine,” letting it “spend more time patrolling a given box of airspace to provide early warning or surveillance.” This is the role most familiar to the pattern of drones like the Reaper or Global Hawk, made by General Atomics and Northrop Grumman respectively, though as described the scout Gambit is intended to watch for enemy planes, in addition to any watching movements below on the ground.
This is an air-to–air fighter. This fighter drone will be less durable than the long-range scout. Instead, it will fight in groups with multiple fighter-Gambits sharing sensors. They will use shared signals to triangulate, find stealthy targets, and even share their sensors. General Atomics claims that this group could perform multiple tasks. “They could alert human piloted fighters further away with a burst transmitting. They could wave off to avoid the hostile fighter. They could use AI and machine learning to harass or trap the hostile fighter.” This theoretically allows drone aircraft to be at the cutting edge of a fight with human supervisors being able to respond once they have detected a hostile enemy.
This aircraft is a training tool. It can emulate the powerful sensors and pretend to be something else. Training work is important and time-intensive, and the Air Force is already invested in using AI to evaluate pilots and pilot technique. Tools that are especially effective at training, like the Angry Kitten electronic warfare suite, can end up adapted to frontline service.
Last but not least, this model is “a combat reconnaissance-focused model with no tail and swept wings,” which in the sketch resembles the flying wing B-2 bomber or the uncrewed RQ-170 drone. The General Atomics release for this drone is the least descriptive, offering only that the stealth Gambit is “optimized for long-endurance missions of a specialized nature, leveraging low-observable elements and other advanced systems for avoiding enemy detection.” As the B-2 and RQ-170 indicate, that kind of stealth is useful for bombing targets despite the presence of air defenses, or for surveillance in areas where another plane would risk getting shot down or being detected.
Teaming with possibilities
When General Atomics president David Alexander announced Gambit in March, he said that “Gambit will usher in a new era, where UAS [uncrewed aircraft systems] work collaboratively with manned aircraft to detect, identify and target adversaries at range and scale across the battlespace.”
The drone family is designed for use with existing and new crewed aircraft. This allows autonomy to take over many of those tasks currently performed by remote pilots. Instead of having multiple analysts gathered around a video feed from the drone, while a remote crew steers and directs sensors it, the Gambit family is self-sufficient but still under human supervision. This allows fighter pilots to focus on missions like intercepting enemy aircraft or clearing out anti-air missiles.
With programs like the Loyal Wingman, the Air Force has already indicated an interest in drone escorts for future fighters, and has worked with multiple contractors on designs that meet this need. Gambit suggests that the defense industry is open to providing drone escorts for whole families.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.