Warplanes: Reaper Replacement Rescinded

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March 2, 2012: The U.S. Air Force has decided to cancel its MQ-X project. This was an effort to develop a replacement for the MQ-9 Reaper. Instead, more money will be invested in developing technology to analyze the enormous quantity of data already generated by its UAVs. For decades the army and navy have complained of the long delays in getting photos taken by air force recon aircraft.

The air force is also cutting back on UAV purchases. This year 24, instead of a planned 48, Reapers will be bought. The army is also cutting its order for its smiliar (but smaller) MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAV from 43 to 19. In addition to budget cuts, another reason for the reduced orders is the belief that the next war will be against someone, like Iran, China, or North Korea, who will have weapons that could easily shoot down Predators and Reapers. The next generation of these UAVs, like the Avenger, will be designed and equipped to deal with this more hostile environment.

At the moment, the "next generation Reaper" role will be taken by the existing Avenger ("Predator C"). This jet powered aircraft was developed privately by the firm that makes the Predator and Reaper UAVs that MQ-X was to replace. Avenger took its first flight in early 2009. The air force has already agreed to buy at least one Avenger and send it to Afghanistan. Avenger test flights over the last three years were encouraging enough for the air force to adopt Avenger as the base design for MQ-X.

Development of the Avenger began a decade ago. The first flight was supposed to have been five years ago but there were technical problems that kept coming up. Apparently it was worth the wait, as the U.S. Navy was impressed and particularly interested in using Avenger to replace the soon-to-be-retired EA-6Bs in their most dangerous attack missions. The air force likes the ability to arm Avenger with a smart bomb, including the 900 kg (2,000 pound) GBU-34 penetrator version.

Avenger looks like a larger jet powered version of the five ton Reaper (Predator B). Avenger is 13.2 meters (41 feet) long, with a 20.1 meter (66 foot) wingspan, and built to be stealthy. The V shaped tail and smooth lines of the swept wing aircraft will make it difficult to detect by radar. There is a humpbacked structure on top of the aircraft for the engine air intake. There is an internal bomb bay to hold about a ton of weapons, sensors, or additional fuel to provide another two hours of flying time (in addition to the standard 20 hours endurance). The 4,800 pound thrust engine is designed to minimize the heat signature that sensors can pick up. Total payload is 1.36 tons (3,000 pounds) and total weight of the aircraft is nine tons. Cruising speed is 740 kilometers an hour. The Avenger is designed to fly high (up to 20,000 meters/60,000 feet) and cross oceans. Until 2009 the Avenger didn't officially exist and was a "black" (secret) program. Avenger is, like Reaper, a combat UAV that will often carry weapons as well as sensors. Each Avenger costs about $15 million. The Avenger B would probably be a little larger and more expensive. The air force has not yet revealed their wish list of changes for Avenger B.

All this attention to stealth should be no surprise. The Avenger manufacturer, General Atomics, has a division devoted to building stealth features into aircraft. This includes the world's largest indoor radar cross section testing facility. Despite the bomb bay, the Avenger is expected to be used primarily to carry ground surveillance radar, which could be mounted on the bottom of the aircraft in an aerodynamically smooth enclosure.

The U.S. Navy has been interested in Avenger since the beginning of development. Thus the Avenger wings can be built to fold for use on carriers and have a tail hook needed for carrier landings. The Avenger uses landing gear from the F-5, an aircraft of the same weight class. The naval version is now called the Sea Avenger.

The navy, and several air forces, are also looking at the Avenger as an ELINT (electronic intelligence) aircraft. The ability to carry a ton of sensors and stay in the air for twenty hours per sortie has a lot of appeal for an aircraft that is already stealthy and doesn't carry a pilot. Moreover, the Avenger can perform ELINT missions entirely autonomously, making it more difficult to detect. General Atomics believes it can get the Avenger to operate (takeoff and land) from a carrier before any of the other contenders (mainly the 19 ton X-47). The Avenger weighs less than half as much as the X-47 and has an exemplary track record.

 


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