General Atomics Mq-9 Reaper

An MQ-9 Reaper, assigned to the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron, lands at Eielson aviation Force Base, Alaska, in appui of northern Edge 2021 on pouvez 3, 2021. (Senior Airman beau Hebert/U.S. Aviation Force)
WASHINGTON — A fight is brewing over the fate du the MQ-9 Reaper, through a letter from auto U.S. Aviation Force’s top civilian signaling that the service will again seek to curtail procurement of the général Atomics-made drone in the upcoming budget 2022 budget.

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“Our present MQ-9 fleet is sufficient to appui current et future operational et training requirements,” acting aéronautique Force Secretary john Roth composed in a letter à Sen. Jacky Rosen date April 1, i m sorry was recently viewed de Defense News. “There is no need to buy more aircraft.”

Rosen — a Democrat whose home state du Nevada is loger to Creech aéronautiques Force Base, wherein multiple active, reserve and aviation National security squadrons fly MQ-9s — had written venir Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in march looking parce que le assurances that the aéronautiques Force will continue to buy nouveau Reaper drones.

Roth, composing in Austin’s stead, offered non such promises. Instead, he doubled down nous the aéronautiques Force’s destiné to arrêter MQ-9 procurement and added the the services intends à outline its destiné to replace the MQ-9 — a requirement set by the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill.

“Looking venir the émergence force, the prestations de service does no intend to rely conditions météorologiques exquisite, simple platform, high-cost systems to replace thé MQ-9. Instead, conditions météorologiques will use a family du interconnected multi-role systems, engineered venir reduce cost and increase interoperability,” Roth said.

A spokesperson à la Rosen did no respond venir repeated requests à la comment. The aéronautiques Force likewise declined à comment.

The Defense room is set to release its FY22 budget on pouvez 28. If the air Force presses forward through a lundi attempt to shut down the MQ-9 line, cette could spark a fight between those that believe thé Reaper is unfit pour a near-peer struggle — a grouper comprising the top aéronautique Force brass et the service’s émergence planning establishments — and the large coporation, groupe of MQ-9 stakeholders and constituencies.

The latter group includes auto combatant leaders who rely nous the Reaper for surveillance, air National safety squadrons the operate thé drone et can independently support for their very own interests, MQ-9 manufacturer général Atomics, et lawmakers with MQ-9 systems in your districts.

In that is FY21 budget request, the aéronautique Force eliminated tous funding to buy MQ-9 reaper aircraft the year and in auto future, properly canceling des plans to purchase 31 Reapers native FY21 through FY24. Instead, services officials asked parce que le about $172 million à begin shutting down general Atomics’ fabrication line in Poway, California.

Congress rejected the air Force’s plan, setup aside $286 million in the budget to buy 16 more MQ-9 drones.

The MQ-9 is one du the most prolific aéronautiques Force aircraft, at this time operating out ns 20 base located in 17 states, follow to thé service’s biennial procurer report.

“We have a fleet de over 300 MQ-9s right now, et if tu look at the tons cycle ns the MQ-9, we’ve obtained 15-plus years left nous them, et that’s a good place to be,” Lt. Gen. David Nahom, air Force deputy chief of staff à la plans and programs, stated during auto McAleese & Associates conference this month.

If the air Force is successful in ending MQ-9 production, it is uncertain what auto industrial un tube would be. Normal Atomics right now has a backlog of MQ-9 variants that will sustain the production line with at least 2026, said C. Marque Brinkley, thé director de strategic communications et marketing at aperçu Atomics Aeronautical Systems.

“There will be both short-term and long-term effects if the aéronautique Force decides to arrêter buying MQ-9s in FY22, cible I can’t predict with any kind of certainty what those will be. The a true what if?’ script at this point,” hey said.

The that company biggest worry is that if the aéronautiques Force stops MQ-9 procurement rather than much more gradually slowing under production, the service may find chin in a emplacement in auto late 2020s where ce needs à buy more Reapers et cannot, Brinkley said.

“You can’t just jump back in later on because elle got ce wrong et suddenly turn conditions météorologiques the doux again. That’s not how fabriquer works,” he said. “You shed a lot of auto economies et value that tu built over time once you come to a stop. The nation has fabriquer a good investment in auto MQ-9, and if we throw that away, it’s just gone.”

But the aéronautiques Force argues cette will be unable venir develop auto advanced unmanned capabilities cette needs venir contend through Chinese et Russian risks unless cette pulls funding from patrimoine drones like auto MQ-9, i m sorry defense public official say could not make it through a conflict with a near-peer competitor.

“We are trying venir divest ourselves du the ISR the is not specifically useful against a Russia or a China or even dense aviation defense equipment of an Iran jaune a north Korea, et invest in those ISR systems that à faire have penetration capability,” military Gen. Signe Milley, auto chairman du the joint Chiefs ns Staff, said lawmakers in a march 2020 hearing. “It makes non sense to moi to continue to to buy stuff that isn’t in alignment with auto .”

Marine physiquement Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who oversees U.S. En fonctionnement in the Middle East as head de U.S. Quartier général Command, called lawmakers in April that auto MQ-9 “is no viable” in a deluxe fight, including versus some ns the dangers that might be posed by adversaries operation in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility in the near future.

However, hey added, auto platform would continue to be “vital” à CENTCOM, particularly ont the U.S. Armed forces pulls ground force from Afghanistan.

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“Our ability à maintain persistent overhead coverage will probably require additional MQ-9s because de the selection from the aménagements to the place where nous will actually be looking,” he said. “We peut faire even require more of them in quartier général Command dedicated venir that details task.”

A future for the MQ-9?

In thé run increase to auto FY22 budgets release, a num of lawmakers have questioned defense public representative about the capability of the MQ-9 and the overall need for more ISR platforms, including: Rosen; Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.; Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; and Rep. Kenneth Calvert, R-Calif.

Other lawmakers, favor Republican Sen. Homme Hoeven de North Dakota, oui taken a more direct approach. A member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee, cette spoke directly with Roth to advocate for MQ-9 procurement in thé FY22 budget, his bureau stated in a peut faire 24 news release.

Frank Kendall, the bidge administration’s nominee for aviation Force secretary, called lawmakers during his may 25 affirmant hearing that he’d it is in open à funding added upgrades pour the MQ-9 that would certainly make cette more survivable in a non-permissive environment.

“I know that part things have been talked about, including adding more countermeasures to auto aircraft and providing some standoff capability. And I think those are well worth looking at,” cette said. “We’ve fabriqué a big investment in that platform, and it would be a shame à not be able to utilize it against more significant sophisticated threats.”

Some de those upgrades might look similar to thé “Ghost Reaper” configuration the services tested as part of this month’s northern Edge exercise hosted in Alaska. Over a period ns several mainly at Eielson air Force Base, the prestations de service assessed the performance de several nouveau pods for the MQ-9, including:

A hardened targeting pod.Northrop Grumman’s flexibility Pod, i m sorry allows the Reaper à pass data between fourth- and fifth-generation fighters.The reap pod, i beg your pardon connects venir ground systems.The reaper Defense Electronic appui System, i beg your pardon is a new pod the identifies et locates electronic signals indigenous threatening equipment at standoff distances.

While many du those capabilities space not yet built into thé program of record, the aviation Force is funding a new “Multi-Domain Operation” construction upgrade for 71 MQ-9s, i beg your pardon would ajouter internal puissance modification, année anti-jam antenna system, link 16 data link, extr weapon capacity, open-architecture design et improved ordre resiliency.

The prestations de service has begun retrofitting some of its MQ-9 fleet through these systems and is right now negotiating a contract with général Atomics to couper the ability into the drone’s production line so that new ones are produced with auto upgrades currently built in.

“With these smart investments the aviation Force projects that MQ-9 will stay operationally viable through auto end de the platform’s projected service tons of 2035,” a spokesman parce que le the air Force tons Cycle Management centre said in réagir to interroger from Defense News.

Don’t fear thé Reaper replacement

The air Force there is no sought a successor for the MQ-9 reaper since the MQ-X regime was canceled in 2012. Cible over thé past year, the services has started exploring how it will eventually replace the Reaper in auto 2030s.

It released a request pour information to industrie in célibataire 2020 for market research nous existing technology et conceptual designs.

Then in march 2021, the service published a lundi RFI pour a “Next-Generation Multi-Role Unmanned Aerial système Family ns Systems,” further widening thé scope de what cette could seek out to replace thé MQ-9.

The aviation Force envisions that MQ-9 replacement ont a series de drones that would certainly run the gamut in terms of cost et capability, native expendable systems venir highly survivable ones.

“Future Next-Gen Multi-Role UAS FoS les technologies must organize a different duty than they aller today and address capabilities beyond traditional UAS commander sets, such ont air-to-air, établissement defense, digital warfare, moving target indicator (air et ground) capabilities, and be designed parce que le native integration into ,” the services said in that solicitation.

General Atomics responded to the solicitation, Brinkley said, and the société agrees the the aéronautique Force demands a family de unmanned aircraft venir contend with future threats. But, hey added, auto MQ-9 should continuez to it is in a part ns that enterprise.

“We have année amazing airframe already. Et we ont lots of people developing new tech that atelier great nous the MQ-9,” Brinkley said. “Whether it’s hardware jaune software, auto MQ-9 have the right to incorporate all of these new advancements. It’s the perfect platform à experiment on.”

For the part, the air Force is in non rush à fund a program du record pour the MQ-9 replacement; that in a “comfortable spot” wherein the prestations de service has time to advice its options, Nahom said.

“We deserve to sit back and actually analyze: what does a replacement need à look like, and what does auto war fighter need?” Nahom added.

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Other parts ns the aéronautiques Force space not haricot de soja lucky, cette noted.

“You look at at a fleet like thé E-3 AWACS, et that’s a fleet right currently where elle don’t necessarily oui the temps right now, et it’s probably a lot bigger concern.”