There is a new model of the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator; the Mojave. There is no military designation because no one has ordered Mojave, which is based on the U.S. Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle. Technically the Mojave would be the MQ-1D. It uses current Gray Eagle components but with a more powerful 450 HP engine, compared to MQ-1C’s 180 HP, and a new wing design that is optimized for STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) capabilities. There is new landing gear that can handle taking off and landing on dirt roads or open fields. Mohave is heavier, at 1.6 tons, and has a larger payload. This means it can carry more Hellfire laser guided missiles or a more extensive collection of sensors, including a SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) pod and two missiles at the same time. General Atomics has heard from special operations users of Gray Eagle and other larger UAVs that something like Mojave is needed but no one has developed it yet,
Meanwhile the army Gray Eagle has been upgraded. In 2017 the U.S. Army started receiving the new MQ-1C ER (extended range) version and starting in 2018 this is the only model the army will receive. The army has ordered 107 MQ-1Cs since 2010 and plans to eventually have over 150. Currently only about a hundred are in service.
The original MQ-1C Block 1 Gray Eagle weighed 1.5 tons, had a 160 HP engine, carried 135.4 kg (300 pounds) of sensors internally, and up to 227.3 kg (500 pounds) of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of 30 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. MQ-1C has a wingspan of 18 meters (56 feet) and is 9 meters (28 feet) long. The MQ-1C can carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator) or a dozen smaller 70mm guided missiles.
The MQ-1C ER has a better engine, fifty percent more fuel capacity, over 75 percent more endurance (from 30 to 53 hours), and its payload increased by 50 percent from 372 kg (798 pounds) to 558 kg (1,227 pounds). The fuselage has been modified to handle the increased fuel load and has greater reliability and stability in the air. The additional internal space makes it easier to install a Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) that makes it possible to fly in airspace used by civilian manned aircraft.
The MQ-1C itself is an upgrade of the MQ-1 Predator the U.S. Air Force and CIA used extensively since the late 1990s to redefine the use of aircraft for reconnaissance, surveillance, and airstrikes. Fewer than 500 MQ-1s were produced for the air force and CIA before both organizations moved on to the larger MQ-9 Reaper. Meanwhile the army got a customized upgrade of the MQ-1 into production and found it satisfactory. The MQ-9 is larger than the army needs (or can afford) but the MQ-1C was the right size for what the army needed. The army did not want to depend on the air force for all its UAV needs and after a major struggle with the Department of Defense bureaucracy, the army got the air force to back off on its efforts to claim control over all UAVs. In this endeavor the army was supported by the navy and marines, who had also had past problems with the air force’s efforts to control everything that flew.
The army needed their own large, armed, reconnaissance UAVs because when the air force controls UAVs air force needs take precedence and the army is left to improvise as best it could. The army operates their MQ-1Cs like any other aircraft in Army Aviation Brigades. The UAV operators are located with the rest of brigade personnel and troops on the ground have direct contact with the Gray Eagles and easy access to what it is seeing. General Atomics noted that while the Aviation Brigade helicopters could, and often did, operate from just about anywhere, the Gray Eagles still needed a paved surface for takeoffs and landings. A stretch of paved highway would do but that is not always available and when used the highway requires more manpower to keep it clear of debris or any other obstacles. Mojave is much less demanding.
While the army accepted the heavier and more expensive ER version, an even heavier (1.9 tons) and more capable IGE (Improved Gray Eagle) was developed by General Atomics without a contract and presented to the army, which bought 36 IGEs for intelligence missions and the army Special Forces.
Mohave is an impressive version of the original Predator and may find customers who perceive a need for a large UAV that can operate from just about anywhere. The U.S. Air Force already has units that can be sent just about anywhere and turn an abandoned airfield or any reasonably flat surface into an airbase, complete with radar and traffic control, in less than a day. C-17 and C-130 transports can operate from these improvised air bases, and now so can a large UAV that requires a runway.