MQ Next Generation UAS ISR/Strike
The Air Force needs a cheaper Reaper. On 15 February 2012, the Air Force cancelled its MQ-X program, which was supposed to find an aircraft to replace the MQ-9 Reaper. A decade after shelving MQ-X, USAF revived an MQ-9 replacement plan. The Air Force Materiel Command, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) in support of the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance/Special Operations Forces (ISR/SOF) Directorate is seeking information in support of market research for potential improved solutions of future Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) ISR/Strike capabilities. As part of market research, a Request for Information was issued 03 June 2020 in accordance with (IAW) Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) 15.201(e), “RFIs may be used when the Government does not presently intend to award a contract, but wants to obtain price, delivery, other market information, or capabilities for planning purposes.
General Atomics’ Aeronautical Systems division, or GS-ASI, released a new rendering of its stealthy, next-generation unmanned aircraft system. The GA-ASI released a new rendering of the new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike unmanned air vehicle (UAV)’s design on 26 February 2021. The company stated: “Our robust digital engineering and advanced manufacturing practices deliver affordable dominant weapon systems to the warfighter with the speed and lethality required to maintain overmatch.”
The new flying-wing unmanned aircraft is designing as a proposed replacement of the U.S. Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft. The MQ-9 Reaper, it is a remotely piloted medium-altitude, long endurance aircraft designed for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR), and attack missions. The design of the new concept incorporated holistic signature reduction techniques across RF, IR, visual, and acoustic domains. The long, thin flying-wing design of the new combat drone also appears to have all areas of stealth technology, from the aircraft’s air inlets.
The MQ-9 enterprise continues to execute the Hunter-Killer ISR mission set across the globe, servicing multiple Combatant Commanders in various Areas of Responsibility. The Hunter-Killer mission set provides a unique capability of combined ISR and Strike attributes in a single platform fulfilling the highest demand of all Air Force assets through vast capacity. With the MQ-9 platform planning for end of service life, a need to identify a solution that continues to provide for this demand is imperative.
The purpose of this RFI is to research potential solutions for the Next Generation UAS ISR/Strike platform, the Next Generation Medium Altitude UAS and potential follow-on program to the MQ-9 weapon system. The Air Force is also interested in researching alternative ways to support future lower-end, lower-cost ISR missions which may include initiatives to modernize, augment, and/or replace existing systems. This RFI inquires about unique and innovative practices that can deliver relevant capability efficiently, timely and at a reduced life-cycle cost. The responses received will inform the overall acquisition strategy for future Medium Altitude UAS ISR/Strike solutions. The final objective of the program is to deliver capability that supports the United States Air Force (USAF) ISR/Strike mission(s) across a wide range of military operations.
As the threat environment continues to evolve and to be relevant in the future fight, potential solutions are expected to employ, to the maximum extent possible, any/all advanced technologies that support the principles of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). This primarily includes, but is not limited to Autonomy, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning, Digital Engineering, Open Mission Systems (OMS) and Attritable Technology, among others.
Initial Operational Capability (IOC) was planned to occur 3rd Quarter of FY2031. Initial deliveries in support of this IOC date are planned to start 4th Quarter FY2030.
AFLCMC/WII Medium Altitude UAS Division requested information on three Focus Areas (FAs) for this RFI. Interested parties are encouraged to provide responses in all three areas; however, a response to all three areas was not required. Information provided would need to answer each applicable FA in its entirety, if possible.
Focus Area #1 (FA.1) – Future Medium Altitude UAS ISR/Strike Solutions. What are potential Medium Altitude UAS ISR/Strike solutions currently in development or already developed, that can be geared towards the advanced technologies of the 2018 NDS principles (Autonomy, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Digital Engineering, Open Mission Systems (OMS) and Attritable Technology)? Solutions from the commercial marketplace that are scalable to a military platform are highly encouraged. Request responses identify solutions (both hardware and software, to include independent algorithms with relevant capability) at the system, sub-system, or component level.
Focus Area #2 (FA.2) – Innovative Development & Business Practices. What innovative development practices/techniques can be employed to integrate and/or further advance state of the art technologies for UAS platforms supporting USAF ISR/Strike missions? Request responses identify solutions that address a complete, comprehensive system.
Focus Area #3 (FA.3) – Digital Engineering Initiatives. What early risk reduction Digital Engineering related initiatives are available to help reduce programmatic risk? Testing and experimentation of virtual prototypes in a multi-physics digital ecosystem are of primary interest.
The acquisition strategy has not yet been determined. Market research results will assist the Air Force in determining the acquisition path forward with an emphasis on maximizing multiple competitions to include the Air Vehicle, Automated ISR Sensors and Data Exploitation, and Ground Control Stations/Systems/Suites all adhering to Open Architecture principles with an emphasis on welcoming innovative solutions form small businesses.
Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, told lawmakers in March 2020 that, while the MQ-9 has taken on robust operations — encompassing both ISR and strike — for more than a decade, it simply isn't suited to the high-end fight for which the service is preparing. "The Reaper has been a great platform for us," Roper said before the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces. "[But] there are things that are more high-end military unique, things that are meant to be able to survive even in a contested environment. A lot of technology will have to go [into that], and there will likely be expensive systems, but we also see a lot of opportunity to bring in commercial technology, push the price point down, have systems that ... we can take more loss with."
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