MQ-X Reaper Follow-On
On 15 February 2012, the Air Force cancelled its MQ-X program, which was supposed to develop a replacement for the MQ-9 Reaper. “At this point, we don’t see a need, or we don’t plan in the near term to invest in any sort of MQ-X like program,” Lt. Gen. Larry James said at a Feb. 15 Aviation Week-sponsored conference in Arlington, Va. “Given the requirement set, given what’s going on out there, we believe that the Reaper fleet that we can upgrade those if we need to meet the demand signal.”
Under the Air Force’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan, the Air Force planned to deploy a new, stealthy RPA — called the MQ-X — capable of surviving in heavily defended airspace and performing a wide variety of ISR and strike missions. It will complement a new long-range ISR-strike platform — previously known as a bomber and eventually the B-21 Raider — which may be “optionally manned.” The MQ-9 Reaper drone's Achille's Heel was its price tag.
In April 2009, General Atomics revealed its privately developed Predator C, also known as Avenger. The first flight was conducted on 4 April 2009. In contrast to the previous members of the family, the Predator C was jet powered, using the P&W PW545B. The aircraft was aimed at the US Air Force’s MQ-X Next Generation UAS requirement. With the cancellation of the MQ-X program, the Air force began looking at Predator C as a possible member of the Predator/Reaper familly.
Col Bruce Emig, Chief of the Irregular Warfare Division at Headquarters Air Combat Command, discussed the next generation military UAV/UAS at IDGA's UAV Summit in April 2010. He detailed how MQ-X will be the successor to the proven Predator and Reaper programs and was being designed with current conflict and potential confilcts in mind. He also talked about needs of the USAF and how MQ-X in in development to fill those gaps.
In 2011 CBO’s options for the Air Force examine the implications of more quickly developing and fielding a new aircraft that would have improved payload-duration plus other characteristics such as a lower chance of being detected (stealth) and higher speed—traits that would be advantageous in conflicts against technologically capable adversaries.
CBO’s options for the Air Force look at the implications of a more rapid development and fielding of unmanned aircraft systems that have characteristics that could be advantageous in a conflict against a more technologically capable adversary. The Air Force was exploring concepts and requirements for such an aircraft — commonly referred to as the MQ-X in discussions of future plans — and aerospace companies, anticipating the Air Force’s interest, have made varying levels of investment in developing the next generation of multimission unmanned aircraft systems.
Under the options, the Air Force would purchase a notional MQ-SX — an aircraft that would have some characteristics consistent with those the Air Force was considering for its proposed MQ-X — in lieu of some of the Reapers or Global Hawks in current plans. The MQ-SX postulated by CBO would be a jet-powered aircraft about one and a half times the size of the Reaper with an airframe designed to be more difficult to detect and target by air-defense systems.
Relative to the Reaper, the larger size of the MQ-SX would enable it to carry a greater payload (sensors, weapons, or fuel); jet power would allow the aircraft to reach its destination (a target or orbit location) in less time; and stealth features would improve its ability to operate in defended airspace. CBO’s cost estimate for the notional MQ-SX assumes modest improvements in stealth relative to that of Global Hawks, Predators, and Reapers. A highly stealthy design would probably cost more.
Less certain is how CBO’s notional MQ-SX would compare with the possible follow-on to the Reaper, purchases of which could begin in 2017 according to DoD’s long-term aircraft procurement plan. For the purpose of calculating payload, endurance, and cost, CBO has assumed that the follow-on aircraft would be similar to the Reaper but would probably include improved stealth characteristics. CBO estimated the cost of the notional MQ-SX by scaling up the cost of the existing Reaper airframe to account for the change in size and for the addition of stealth features for improved survival in defended airspace. CBO’s cost estimate for the notional MQ-SX assumes modest efforts to improve stealth characteristics relative to the Global Hawk, Predator, and Reaper. A highly stealthy design would probably cost more. Ancillary equipment that can contribute substantially to the cost of unmanned aircraft systems (for example, ground stations and communications systems) is assumed to be similar to that of the Reaper.
At least two aircraft that might meet those criteria were flying at that time — the General Atomics Avenger and the RQ-170 Sentinel. The two aircraft have significant differences: the Avenger resembles a Global Hawk with the addition of airframe shaping for stealth, whereas the Sentinel has a tailless design resembling the B-2 bomber. Aircraft at this stage of development could enter production more quickly than would be possible if starting from scratch.
A larger aircraft is able to carry various combinations of larger sensors, heavier weapon loads, or additional fuel for improved endurance. In addition to heavier total weapon loads, a larger aircraft could potentially carry larger individual weapons that would enable the aircraft to attack additional types of targets. For example, a wider array of targets would be vulnerable to an MQ-SX if that aircraft was designed to accommodate 2,000-pound class weapons, which are beyond the Reaper’s capacity.
Higher speed enables an aircraft to spend a smaller proportion of its time in transit and more time on orbit and to increase the size of its orbit for surveillance. For example, if close support for ground forces required that an orbiting aircraft release a weapon no more than five minutes after receiving the order, a faster aircraft could respond from a greater distance. As a result, fewer aircraft might be required overall to cover a given area.
MQ-X or strike RPA will provide armed escort or SEAD support to Personnel Rcovery [PR] missions. Key attributes for future PR platforms include flexibility (enabling adaptation to an ever-changing tactical or operational situation in a dynamic environment and fluctuating logistics scheme) and precision to maneuver in a timely manner to a specific location. The platform requires survivability attributes for operations in environments where the UA may experience hostile fire, adverse weather conditions, challenging terrain, and high elevations or remote locations. Future platforms must be able to team with other manned or unmanned vehicles. In addition, MQ-X or strike RPA will provide armed escort or SEAD support to PR missions.
The Dynamic Maneuvering (DYNAMAN) project envisioned a mature capability for predictive flying of RPA while in RSO to overcome the communications link latency by artificially presenting the forecast aircraft attitude to the pilot based on control input. Initially aimed at MQ-1, MQ-9, and MQ-X, DYNAMAN seeks to improve mission performance and increase options in CAS, IW and tactical ISR environments through providing the ability to dynamically fly the aircraft.
The Air Force was beginning to examine future requirements under its embryonic MQ-X NGUAS (Next Generation UAS) program. This program largely disappeared, and it did not seem likely this will reach production prior to 2035. One reason for this may be the existence of "black" programs, such as the elusive RQ-170 "Beast of Kandahar", or an assessment that the current RPA fleet can handle near-term scenarios, short of a worrisome, but unlikely high-intensity conflict.
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