MQ-9C Predator C / Avenger / Avenger ER
MQ-9C is a designation that has been associated with the jet-powered General Atomics Avenger, also known as the Predator C. The next-generation jet-powered Predator C (Avenger) first flew in April Its unique design featuring a retractable EO/IR gimbal, reduced signature, and higher speed, increases its survivability in higher threat environments and provides potential customers with an expanded quick-response armed reconnaissance capability. The high-speed, multi-mission Avenger is a long-endurance, medium-tohigh-altitude RPA system that can perform wide-area surveillance, time-sensitive strike missions over land or sea, and a host of other challenging military missions. The aircraft has much higher operational and transit speeds than current Predator-series aircraft, resulting in quick response and rapid repositioning for improved mission flexibility and survivability.
This tubofan-powered aircraft is equipped with a Pratt and Whitney PW545B engine capable of producing 4,800lb installed thrust. The engine is designed for greater fuel economy and allows the Avenger to operate at speeds up to 400KTAS, a maximum altitude of 50,000ft, and 18 hours endurance. Its significant payload capacity enables it to carry multiple sensors on six external hard points, while its internal weapons bay can house 3,500lb of precision munitions and can be employed in swarm tactics. An extended range variant of Avenger will feature a 76ft wing span and increased fuel capacity that will increase the aircraft's endurance to 20 hours.
As with Predator® B, Predator C Avenger® was developed through the foresight and internal funding of GA-ASI. Its unique design and speed increases its survivability in higher threat environments and provides customers with an expanded quick-response armed reconnaissance capability. The first flight of Predator C occurred in April 2009. The current production version has an increased wingspan of 76 feet with additional fuel capacity resulting in an endurance increase to over 20 hours. The Avenger ER (Extended Range) first flew in October 2016 and completed an expanded flight test program in 2017.
The high-speed, multi-mission Avenger ER is a long-endurance, medium-to-high-altitude Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) system that can perform wide-area surveillance, time-sensitive strike missions over land or sea, and a host of other challenging military or civilian missions. The aircraft has much higher operational and transit speeds than current Predator B-series aircraft, resulting in quick response and rapid repositioning for improved mission flexibility and survivability.
Avenger is a highly advanced, next-generation RPA. The jet-powered aircraft is equipped with a commercial Pratt & Whitney turbofan engine capable of producing over 5,000 pounds of thrust, resulting in a runway length requirement of under 5,000 feet. The engine is designed for greater fuel economy and features class-leading fuel consumption components. Avenger can operate at speeds up to 400 KTAS, at an altitude of over 50,000 feet, and 20+ hours of endurance. Its significant wing hard point payload mounting capacity enables it to carry multiple sensors, while its internal weapons bay can house 3,000 pounds of precision munitions or larger sensor payloads.
The Avenger ER employs the same materials and avionics as Predator B and is likewise controlled from the same fully-interoperable GA-ASI Ground Control Stations (GCS) used for operating Predator-series aircraft. Avenger's low operating cost combined with high-altitude persistence make it an ideal platform to augment existing Low Density High Demand (LDHD) aircraft with long range RADAR, Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), communication relay payloads or weapons. In a contested environment the Avenger platform can penetrate Weapon Engagement Zones (WEZ) of adversary Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (SAMs) without risking human life, or fly with long range sensors outside of the WEZ of even the longest range, strategic SAMs.
The United States deploys another aircraft, a variant of the General Atomics Avenger drone, carrying the base designation Q-11, to meet a similar requirement for a stealthy, but armed platform that could strike high value and mobile targets in contested areas. As of 2017, General Atomics had confirmed the sale of the lone drone to the Air Force, but also the delivery of “up to seven” additional examples to an undisclosed User. The detachment also has a so-called “operation location,” or OL-Det 3, spread between General Atomics’ Mojave Desert Flight Test Facilities at Gray Butte and El Mirage Airfields. The Air Force appears to have designated at least one variant of this drone the YQ-11 and there are likely be additional configurations, such as an operational MQ-11. The testing that Detachment 3 conducts, which also includes work on the MQ-9, supports ACC requirements, as well as those from US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) by way of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). These designations are wholly unrelated to Aero Vironment’s RQ-11A and RQ-11B Ravens. But the latest editions of the Air Force’s Flight Test Aircrew Training manuals, which the service published in 2017, certainly hint at the existence of other U. government Avengers and actual operational activities. These documents include entire sections covering the YQ-11, something that seems incongruous for a fleet of just one drone.
To retain their currency on this aircraft type, the Air Force says pilots and sensor operators must conduct landings using the drone’s electro-optical, infrared, and multi-spectral camera systems. It’s worth noting that Raytheon’s product page for its Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MTS) says this system is found on the “MQ-9C”. YQ-11 crews must also fly mission profiles at least simulating the employment of both missiles and bombs.“Qualification in the YQ-11 does not count as qualification in any other aircraft except like YQ-11 series (Q-11X) requiring difference/conversion training,” one of the manuals says. The “Q-11X” reference suggests that there could be additional Q-11 variants, such as an MQ-11A, beyond the "prototype" YQ-11.“In accordance with the 2011 defense appropriation act, the Air Force procured prototype demonstration capabilities of the Avenger system,” a spokesperson for the Air Force’s 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, a special projects office better known by the nickname Big Safari, said in 2016. “The demonstration has completed and there are no current plans for future demonstrations."
But this wouldn’t preclude the Air Force from operating a separate, classified fleet of operational Avengers. Annual historical reviews for Big Safari for 2012, 2013, and 2014 make no mention of Predator C, Avenger, or YQ-11 in any way, though they do have a category simply labeled “Classified Programs.” were first to report on in detail in 2018. It also wouldn’t prevent the service from being involved in some way with another user.
The 44th has its own convoluted history tracing back to the activation of a separate, secretive entity known as the 732nd Operations Group, Detachment 1. The 732nd as a whole has connections to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Previous media reports have suggested the group acts as a cover for or is otherwise tied in with the CIA’s top-secret drone operations. A patch for the 732nd Operations Group, Detachment 1, showing motifs in common with the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, which flies the RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone. This insignia also has the text "Forging the Sword" along with a lightning bolt, sword, and droplets of blood, suggesting this unit had other missions beyond intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
There remains no evidence that these Nighthawk deployments ever occurred. There are, however, the on-the-record statements from General Atomics that a U. government agency, widely understood to be the CIA, possibly in cooperation with the Air Force, has a fleet of Avengers. The drone's manufacturer has also revealed that at least one Avenger was flying over Syria at the same time when the rumors about F-117s heading back to combat were first emerging. There have been no other publicly acknowledged sales of this drone.
The Avenger would have been able to meet many of the same requirements for stealthy, armed platform able to engage static and moving targets that was far faster, and therefore more responsive, than other unmanned aircraft available in the region. The 44th also officially stood up in April 2015, which would have given it months to reach at least initial operational capability ahead of an actual deployment the following year. This unit’s activation could have provided a cover for a much more mature Avenger program under the auspices of the CIA, as well.
Al Qaeda’s number two leader, Abu Khayr Al Masri, died in what appeared to be an air strike on his car involving a special low-collateral damage munition in Syria’s western Idlib governorate in February 2017. More recently, reported, citing anonymous sources, that President Donald Trump had pushed the CIA to begin arming unspecified drones under its control flying over Syria after taking office the month before. Trump also reportedly received a briefing from the Agency about unique air-dropped munitions designed to avoid civilian casualties. This strike on Al Masri’s car is exactly the kind of mission profile – a high value target in a moving vehicle traveling in a denied area where American manned platforms don't generally go – that seemed to explain why the Air Force or the CIA might have turned to the mothballed F-117s at all. It’s also an operation that an Avenger could have performed and fits almost perfectly with the details and timeline regarding CIA drone operations in ’s subsequent reporting.
With all this in mind, the small but critical gap that needed filling over Syria, and possibly over other countries in the Middle East, both friendly and not so friendly, could very well have been filled by the diminutive, but adaptable and relatively low-risk Avenger fleet that currently lives in the darkness. That's not to say that the mothballed F-117 force wasn't possibly evaluated to fulfill this role, but taking the human out of cockpit, as well as leveraging the long-endurance capabilities of the Avenger may have been an all too logical alternative. There's also the possibility that both airframes were put to use to fulfill a similar mission set.
The presence of one in the region doesn't necessarily preclude the other. Especially if the F-117s were assigned to the Air Force and the handful of Avengers in the Middle East, and Syria, in particular were CIA assets. The claims that the F-117s were returned to service and deployed to the region, on the other hand, come without any hard evidence at all. If the Avenger has quietly stalked and killed high value targets in sensitive airspace, the program is far more successful than anyone has been allowed to let on.
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