US Defence Companies Lining Up to Replace MQ-9 Reaper Drone

On 3 June, the US Air Force issued a request for information to industry, to conduct market research on available technologies as well as conceptual designs for a new drone.

Several US defence companies have lined up to present their concepts of a new stealthy drone amid the US Air Force's efforts to replace the MQ-9 Reaper drone, Defense News reported on Thursday.

The Air Force has been using the MQ-1 Predator and later the MQ-9 Reaper, both developed by General Atomics, for the last two decades in the surveillance and strike missions in the Middle East.

However, according to the Air Force's top acquisition official, Will Roper, currently, it can be more economical and effective to operate a family of UAVs for different purposes: one for high-end penetrating strike and reconnaissance missions, others for low-end surveillance.

On 11 September, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin released renderings of their concepts for the Air Force’s MQ-Next program. 

Northrop’s flying-wing design resembles its X-47B that the company provided for the Navy. The proposed design as well uses the Distributed Autonomy/Responsive Control flight management system, which allows for operators to task multiple drones to fly autonomously according to parameters set by the user.

Lockheed Martin's concept envisages a tailless, stealthy, flying-wing design set for the high-end flight.

"Survivability is really the key to almost any mission, and I think that trend is going to continue into the future," according to Jacob Johnson, the company’s unmanned aerial systems programme manager.

Three days later, on 14 September, General Atomics caught up with its concept as well. The design features a stealthy, long-winged, jet-powered air vehicle with the new model's survivability and endurance “significantly longer” than of the Reaper.

Dave Alexander, president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, has also promised to keep the costs of the vehicle down.

"Some platforms that get up to super high costs, even though they’re unmanned — you can’t afford to lose them. So they’re not attrition-tolerant, and we want to hang on to that piece of it," he said.

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