Air Force's MQ-9 Reaper Drone Replacement Requirements Now Include Air-To-Air Combat Capability

The Reaper’s successor should be able to defend both high-value manned aircraft and itself, in a high-end battlespace, according to the Air Force.

Lockheed Martin

The U.S. Air Force has released its latest request for information as it sets out more requirements for the replacement for its MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle, a program now dubbed MQ-Next. The new document indicates that the service is looking at a future drone that will feature defensive counter-air capabilities to protect high-value manned aircraft, such as tankers, as well as potentially fly red air aggressor missions.

The request for information (RFI) from the Air Force Materiel Command, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) was recently published on the U.S. government’s contracting website beta.SAM.gov. A previous RFI, released last June, focused on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike capabilities for the MQ-9 replacement, which the Air Force hopes will offer reduced operating costs and greater persistence, survivability, and range. While the latest RFI doesn’t mention MQ-Next by name, it does explicitly state that the information sought is related to the replacement of the MQ-9.

U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Emily A. Kenney

An MQ-9 Reaper prior to takeoff at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.

Now, with the Air Force having gathered the information it needs on the aforementioned Next-Gen ISR/strike capabilities, the scope of the RFI has been expanded to what is being termed Next-Generation Multi-Role Unmanned Aerial System Family of Systems (Next-Gen Multi-Role UAS FoS).

The RFI acknowledges that the Next-Gen Multi-Role UAS FoS may be attritable or expendable, unlike the Reaper, as well as, or as an alternative to being survivable and reusable. The document also confirms that the Reaper’s replacement will be tailored for Great Power Competition — suggesting it will be expected to go to war in the kinds of highly contested environments encountered during a conflict with a peer rival such as China or Russia, in line with the demands of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. At the same time, the UAV is also intended to fly missions in permissive environments, too.

As a result, the new combat drone will have to take on additional missions compared to today’s Reaper, including air-to-air, base defense, electronic warfare, and moving target indicator surveillance against assets in the air and on the ground. What is more, the drone is to be designed from the outset to operate as part of the Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) network. The Air Force has already worked with air-to-air-capable armed drones Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS)-related exercise, as you can read about in this previous story. ABMS is the Air Force component of what the Pentagon now calls JADC2.

The RFI also references what sounds very much like the Air Force’s “Digital Century Series,” in which smaller numbers of manned aircraft are produced quickly to meet dynamically evolving threats. 

“A continuous rapid development pipeline will be leveraged by which new capabilities are designed, prototyped, demonstrated, and fielded on a recurring basis to adapt to the ever-changing operating environment and integrate the latest emerging technologies,” the RFI explains.

Within all this, the Air Force has identified particular capabilities or mission packages known as “on-ramps.” The latest RFI is concerned with on-ramp one, which includes two capability subsets: Air Domain Awareness and High-Value Airborne Asset Protection (HVAAP).

Air Domain Awareness is further described as Focus Area #1 and consists of sensors or sensor networks to provide early warning, tracking, and identification of enemy air operations. The RFI mentions low-cost radio-frequency, infrared, and electronic support measures (ESM) among “the multitude of different sensor capabilities” that could fulfill these requirements. Since these tasks are required to be conducted in highly contested and contested environments, the communications suites that will allow integration within JADC2 will have to be suitably resilient, the RFI states. There is also a requirement for data-sharing between multiple UAS as well as with off-board sensors on other platforms.

Focus Area #2 is the High-Value Airborne Asset Protection, or HVAAP, set. This is where the Air Force sets out its requirement for a drone that is able to fight back, above all providing defensive counterair to protect HVAAs like aerial refueling tankers or standoff reconnaissance planes against long-range enemy fighters and “other kinetic and non-kinetic threats.” While adding infrared-guided air-to-air missiles to drones is not new for the Air Force, the RFI includes a much wider range of options for this role including, but not limited to weapons, sensors, electronic warfare, and directed energy weapons.

U.S. Navy

An MQ-9 armed with an AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.

Until now, U.S. drones armed with air-to-air missiles have flown mainly in less-contested environments, in very limited circumstances. Providing a UAV with the means, kinetic or otherwise, to defend a friendly airborne early warning and control aircraft, for example, in high contested airspace is clearly a significant challenge. The drone should also be able to defend itself. Therefore, perhaps, the RFI includes options for both HVAAP solutions that can be integrated onto a UAS or what it describes as “complete UAS platform solutions.” The latter suggests a dedicated air-to-air-capable combat drone as part of Next-Gen Multi-Role UAS FoS. 

In the past, Boeing has pitched its Airpower Teaming System developed for Australia as an escort for high-value aircraft types, among many other roles. In this way, it would free up manned fighters for other frontline missions and would provide a defensive ring around some of the most vulnerable, but also most critical aerial assets. 

It is worth noting, too, that last year General Atomics revealed a previously unknown unmanned aircraft concept, called Defender, that is intended to be capable of air-to-air combat and mid-air refueling. The company said at the time that its primary mission would be to protect “high-value airborne assets.”

General Atomics

Concept artwork for the General Atomics Defender unmanned aircraft.

It is as an extension of this HVAAP role that the RFI identifies a possible red air aggressor mission for the drone. This reflects previous suggestions that future U.S. drones could help bring down the cost of the entire red air training enterprise, reducing the requirement to procure more expensive manned aircraft and teach the instructors required to fly them. You can read more about that aspiration here. Furthermore, aggressor drones of this kind could potentially also replicate enemy drone swarms, mimicking the kinds of capabilities that some of the United States’ potential enemies are working on.

Focus Area #3 reiterates that the Reaper’s successor or successors could be attritable, expendable, survivable, and/or reusable. It also notes that the Air Force desires rapidly reconfigurable payloads — implying, perhaps the kind of modular payload options available in the Boeing Airpower Teaming System — and interoperable software/hardware. Finally, the Next-Gen Multi-Role UAS FoS should be able to operate “autonomously, with minimal dependence on operator inputs.”

COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA, DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE

The first flight of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System.

Overall, the RFI emphasizes, to a significant degree, the requirement for the future drone to operate in highly contested environments, including anti-access/area-denial scenarios, and therefore suggests an aircraft that will be packed with robust communications links to ensure a flow of data between the drone and other platforms in real-time, as well as least some degree of low observability. The Air Force also says it wants more endurance — the basic Reaper can fly for around 20 hours unarmed, or more than 12 hours with weapons. In the case of the MQ-9B version, with an extended wingspan, flight endurance can be increased to more than 40 hours.

An enhanced level of automation is also a cornerstone of the Next-Gen Multi-Role UAS FoS requirement, which ties in with wider Air Force efforts under the Skyborg initiative. Under this effort, no fewer than 13 companies are already competing to help develop different technologies that could go into “loyal wingman” type unmanned aircraft and autonomous unmanned combat air vehicles. The service hopes to begin work on a drone using Skyborg’s AI technologies before the end of the year.

Then there is the important cost factor, with the RFI seeking drone technology that is “not too cost-prohibitive to enable the [Air Force] to field an inventory that can withstand anticipated attrition and achieve desired outcomes with critical combat mass.”

The Air Force wants to achieve all these ambitious goals quickly, too, under what it calls a “Speed to Ramp” initiative. If all goes to plan, the RFI says that a capability should be fielded before “the 2026/2027 timeframe.” Aviation Week Defense Editor Steve Trimble considers this to refer to the HVAAP set, which could potentially be integrated on existing drones by this time. Subsequently, it seems that this and other solutions that will emerge from the Next-Gen Multi-Role UAS should be integrated on a next-generation unmanned aircraft “in the 2030 timeframe.”

It has not yet been established what kind of acquisition strategy will be used to get the new drones to their operators. However, the Air Force says it wants to emphasize “maximizing multiple competitions, to include the aerial platforms, ground control systems, sensors, and data exploitation technologies that nest within open-architecture standards.”

In terms of manufacturers, Northrop Grumman is just one of those known to have put itself forward for MQ-Next, and you can read much more about that company’s thoughts on the program in this previous in-depth interview with their vice president of program management. Lockheed Martin and General Atomics have also announced their interest and there will likely be more to follow.

Northrop Grumman

A Northrop Grumman concept for a possible MQ-Next.

In the meantime, however, we are still awaiting hard requirements for the MQ-Next, so it is far too early to say what kind of form the drone, or drones, might take. It could end up being entirely attritable, or recoverable, or somewhere in between. Similarly, while we now know the Air Force wants it to have an air-to-air capability, the degree of survivability that it may embody could range from all-aspect low observability to what is essentially a non-stealthy, missile-packing loyal wingman. For now, we just don’t know, but there is also a strong likelihood that the requirement will ultimately be for multiple types of systems able to address all these points. 

Despite these limitations, the latest RFI does at least provide a glimpse into some of the kinds of UAV capabilities the Air Force wants to field in the most-too-distant future. Again, it also points to the recognition that the Reaper’s replacement will have to be much more survivable and capable in order to take a more central role in a conflict against an advanced peer-state foe. 

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com