MQ-9 Reaper: Unfettered for Export

Reaper, ready… (click to view full) The MQ-9 Reaper UAV, once called “Predator B,” is somewhat similar to the famous Predator. Until you look at the tail. Or its size. Or its weapons. It’s called “Reaper” for a reason: while it packs the same surveillance gear, it’s much more of a hunter-killer design. Some have […]

Reaper Hellfires Paveways

Reaper, ready…
(click to view full)

The MQ-9 Reaper UAV, once called “Predator B,” is somewhat similar to the famous Predator. Until you look at the tail. Or its size. Or its weapons. It’s called “Reaper” for a reason: while it packs the same surveillance gear, it’s much more of a hunter-killer design. Some have called it the first fielded Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV).

The Reaper UCAV will play a significant role in the future USAF, even though its capability set makes the MQ-9 considerably more expensive than MQ-1 Predators. Given these high-end capabilities and expenses, one may not have expected the MQ-9 to enjoy better export success than its famous cousin. Nevertheless, that’s what appears to be happening. MQ-9 operators currently include the USA and Britain, who use it in hunter-killer mode, and Italy. Several other countries are expressing interest, and the steady addition of new payloads are expanding the Reaper’s advantage over competitors…

The MQ-9 Reaper, and its Little Brothers

MQ-1 Predator Armed Landing

MQ-1 landing –
1 Hellfire fired?
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The MQ-9 Reaper was once called “Predator B,” but it is only loosely based on the famous MQ-1 Predator drone. The Reaper is 36 feet long, with a 66 foot wingspan that can be modified to 88 feet. Its maximum gross takeoff weight is a whopping 10,500 pounds, carrying up to 4,000 pounds of fuel, 850 pounds of internal/ sensor payload, and another 3,000 pounds on its wings. Its 6 pylons can carry heavier reconnaissance payloads, as well as an impressive array of weapons including GPS-guided JDAM family bombs, Paveway laser-guided bombs, Sidewinder missiles for air-air self defense or ground strike use, and other MIL STD 1760 compatible weapons, in addition to the Hellfire anti-armor missiles carried by the Predator. The Reaper becomes the equivalent of a close air support fighter with less situational awareness, lower speed, and less survivability if seen – but much, much longer on-station time.

The MQ-1A/B Predator. This UAV is flown by the USAF and Italy. It’s 27 feet long, with a 55 foot wingspan. Maximum gross takeoff weight is 2,3000 pounds, and it can carry 625 pounds of fuel, 450 pounds of internal payload (sensors), and another 300 pounds on its wings for up to 2 AGM-114 Hellfire anti-armor missiles or equivalent loads. Its service ceiling is 25,000 feet, which can keep it well above the 10,000-15,000 ceiling above which most guns are ineffective. The piston engine is a Rotax 914 turbo that runs on aviation fuel, and pushes the Predator at a slow speed of 120 KTAS. It’s controlled by UHF/VHF radio signals.

US Army MQ-1C ER/MP. The Gray Eagle looks a lot like the Predator but is a little bit bigger, can carry more weapons, and has an engine that can run on the same “heavy fuel” that fills up the Army’s land vehicles. It’s 28 feet long, with a 56 foot wingspan and a service ceiling of 29,000 feet. Maximum gross takeoff weight is 3,200 pounds, carrying up to 600 pounds of fuel, 575 pounds of internal payload (sensors, plus a communications relay), and another 500 pounds on its wings. This doubles weapon capacity, to 4 AGM-114 Hellfire anti-armor missiles or equivalent loads.The piston engine is a Thielert 135hp that runs on heavy fuel or higher-grade aviation fuel, and gives it a slightly faster speed of 135 KTAS. The Improved Gray Eagle substitutes a higher-power Lycoming DL-120 engine, while adding fuel and payload.

The USAF also had an MQ-1B Block X/ YMQ-1C project to develop a Predator system that would run on heavy fuel and carry up to 4 Hellfires. They canceled it, and their Predator buys in general, in favor of the MQ-9 Reaper.

MQ-1 Predator vs MQ-9 Predator-B

MQ-1 vs. MQ-9
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The MQ-9 Reaper. This UAV is far more of a fighter substitute or close-air support complement than other UAVs. Larger than its companion MQ-1 UAVs, its reinforced wings give it far greater weapons carrying capacity of 3,000 pounds. Since most manned jet fighters aren’t carrying that many precision weapons for close support missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, that limit lets the MQ-9 fulfill close-air support roles in most low-intensity conflicts.

Its service ceiling is reportedly 50,000 feet unless it’s fully loaded, which can make a lurking Reaper very difficult to find from the ground. That wouldn’t have been useful to UAVs like the Predator, given the Hellfire missile’s range. On the other hand, the ability to drop GPS and laser-guided bombs makes precision high altitude Reaper strikes perfectly plausible. As one might expect, the MQ-9 Reaper’s default sensor package is more capable than the MQ-1 family’s; it includes General Atomics’ AN/APY-8 Lynx I ground-looking radar, and Raytheon’s MTS-B (AN/AAS-52) surveillance and targeting turret.

The engine is a Honeywell TPE 331-10T, which pushes it along at a rather speedier clip of 240 knots. Not exactly an F-16, or even an A-10, but the Reaper’s extra speed does get it to the problem area faster than a Predator could. A total fatigue limit of 20,000 safe fight hours is about double that of a life-extended F-16, and around 20% higher than an EMB-314/ A-29 Super Tucano counter-insurgency turboprop. The flip side is that UAVs have about twice as many accidents as manned fighters.

Horsham AS brief

Reaper ER. This upgrade adds stronger landing gear, a pair of “wet” hardpoints that can handle a pair of fuel tanks, and a stretched 88′ wingspan that includes the ability to carry fuel in the wings. The standard Reaper is configured for 30 hours in surveillance mode, and roughly 23 hours if armed with Hellfire missiles. General Atomics believes the ER model will raise that to 42 hours for ISR and 35 hours with the Hellfire.

Block 5. The latest MQ-9 version is the Block 1+, soon to be known as Block 5. Improvements focus on 3 areas: power capacity, payload capacity, and communications capacity. Power is improved via a new high-capacity starter generator, and an upgraded electrical system whose new backup generator can support all flight critical functions with a triple redundancy. Payload is improved using new trailing arm heavyweight landing gear (TA-MLG), and a weapons kit upgrade from BRU-15 [PDF] bomb release units to ITT Exelis’ BRU-71/A [PDF]. Finally, communications upgrades include encrypted datalinks, bandwodth improvements, upgraded software to allow the 2-person aircrew to operate all onboard systems, and dual ARC-210 VHF/UHF radios with wingtip antennas that allow simultaneous communications between multiple air-to-air and air-to-ground parties.

SOCOM. US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) flies the MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 Predators. Both are referred to as Medium Altitude Long Endurance Tactical (MALET) platforms, and the 160th SOAR added the MQ-1C Gray Eagle in November 2013. If SOCOM has to bring the MALET down to hammer a target, they fly in enhanced variants with improved video transmission, infrared modifications, signals intelligence payloads, and “delivery of low collateral damage weapons.” The latter presumably includes precision mini-missile options like Raytheon’s Griffin, and precision glide bombs like Northrop Grumman’s GBU-44 Viper Strike and Lockheed Martin’s Scorpion, all of which allow a single Hellfire rail or weapon station to carry multiple weapons. SOCOM does want the Reaper to be more transportable, though, for quick delivery and use in theater.

Other. General Atomics’ Mariner/ Guardian maritime surveillance variant and FAA-certified high-altitude Altair research UAV are both derived from the MQ-9 Reaper. So, too, is NASA’s Ikhana.

Program Highlights

MQ-9 UAV Program Dashboard, August 2012

A basic MQ-9 Reaper system consists of 4 UAVs, each with a Raytheon MTS-B day/night surveillance and targeting turret, General Atomics AN/APY-8 Lynx ground-looking SAR/GMTI radar, and satellite communications equipment; Weapon kits with integrated hardpoints for certified weapons; 1 Ground Control System; and Ground Data Terminals.

Operational squadrons will also have appropriate support equipment, simulator and training devices, and Readiness Spares Packages (RSP) on hand. A lot of support is still handled by contractors, but some is being moved inside the military.

The average flyaway cost of an MQ-9 is between $17-21 million, based on FY 2015 budget documents. Note that flyaway cost subtotals also include shares of Ground Control Stations (GCS), Ground Data Terminals (GDTs), and Predator Primary Satellite Links (PPSLs), which means that buying different numbers of ancillary systems or UAVs changes the cost number from year to year.

Export buyers will incur higher costs, as the few UAVs they buy need the entire set of back-end infrastructure and support systems. Co-location with the USAF or Britain in a satellite-linked operations center can help defray the biggest expenses, but costs will still be far higher than they would be for a USAF purchase.

MQ-9 UAS Budgets to FY 2014

American budget totals reflect the number of individual UAVs purchased, though each year is also buying the other equipment needed to make the Reapers work, and making long lead-time buys for the following year. Note that both RDT&E funding and procurement funding beyond FY 2015 reflect the USAF only, and don’t include the minor contributions of US SOCOM.

A complete timeline of the MQ-9 program, including export sales and requests, and planned milestones:

MQ-9 timelinhe, 2002 - 2016

Competitors & Prospects

USAF on UAV futures

The MQ-9 has few competitors at the moment. Other UCAVs like the US Navy’s X-47 UCAS-D, the European nEUROn project, and Britain’s Taranis all focused on the stealthy fighter replacement role, and conventional UAVs optimized for surveillance rather than strike, Serious competition would involve existing UAVs that begin integrating and proving a variety of weapon sets, and have the capacity to carry a substantial payload. The challenge is that many of those UAVs will hit limits to payload carriage or endurance before they can match the Reaper, or run afoul of the 300 mile range/ 500 pound ordnance limit embedded in the Missile Technology Control Regime treaty.

The BAE Mantis/ Telemos UAV, whose twin pusher-propeller design and T-tail make it look like the unmanned offspring of an A-10 “Warthog” and Argentina’s IA 58 Pucara counter-insurgency aircraft, was well positioned to compete. Instead, it was sidelined by lack of funding and commitment from Britain and France. Israel has UAVs in a similar size class (Heron-TP, Hermes 900, Dominator), but they don’t routinely carry weapons, and heaven’t been exported as armed UAVs. Italy and the UAE are building Piaggio’s fast Hammerhead P.1HH, but the MCTR cripples its payload, and plans to arm the UAV remain distant. The UAE touts their Yabhon United 40 Block 5, but it needs to be inducted and proven in operational service. China has begun to export its Wing Loong armed UAV, but its peer comparison is the MQ-1 Predator.

That’s the good news for General Atomics. The bad news is that is that MQ-9 export approval beyond NATO and similarly close allies seems unlikely. MQ-9s are currently in service with the USAF, Britain (10), France (2), and Italy (4). The Netherlands has committed to buy 4, but hasn’t placed a contract yet. Poland is also said to be considering a purchase, and Germany was a strong export candidate before its current government backed off buying any drones at all. Note that even within this group, Britain has been the only country allowed to arm their Reapers.

Future Planning & Developments

MQ-9 Block 5

MQ-9 Block 5
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As of March 2013, the USAF intends to fulfill the MQ-9 Increment One CPD requirements with a final UAS configuration consisting of the MQ-9 Block 5 UAV with OFP 904.6, and the Block 30 GCS. The program will be reducing or deferring 12 required block 5 capabilities related to aircraft endurance, radar performance, and reliability, and other areas. The UAV’s core OFP flight software has been a development issue, and DOT&E expects further delays, along with added risks because cyber-vulnerabilities haven’t been heavily tested.

AFOTEC hoped to conduct formal operational testing of the final MQ-9 Increment One UAS in late 2014, but the addition of manufacturing issues has pushed things back to early 2016.

“Increment II” upgrades beyond the MQ-9 Block 5 were slated to include GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb integration, Automatic take-off and landing, Deicing, and National Airspace certification for flights in American civil airspace. At present, those upgrades languish in an unfunded limbo.

Contracts & Key Events, 2005 SDD – Present

MQ-9

MQ-9, Kandahar
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Some support contracts are common to the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper fleet. They are not covered here. Britain’s MQ-9 Reaper program has its own DID Spotlight article, but its items are reproduced here as well.

Unless otherwise indicated, all contracts are managed by Wright-Patterson AFB, OH, where the 658th AESS/PK is the Predator Contracting Group. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. of Poway, CA (near San Diego, north of MCAS Miramar) is the contractor. Note that, for whatever reason, many USAF orders don’t seem to be announced through standard channels. See budgets, above, for a clearer sense of the numbers involved.

FY 2014 – 2020

 

MQ-9 Reaper pre-flight, Afghanistan

Afghan Pre-Flight
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December 3/20: Spain General Atomics has delivered the final two MQ-9A Block 5 UAVs ordered by the Spanish Air Force. The delivery took place on November 23 and includes a ground control station. The new MQ-9s will be operated by the 233rd Squadron at Talavera la Real Air Base near Badajoz, Spain. Besides being the first for the issuance of the Airworthiness Military Type Certificate, Spain’s program represents the first MQ-9A Block 5 acquisition by an international partner. Other milestones for the program have included the SpAF taking initial delivery of its MQ-9A Block 5 aircraft at the end of 2019 and launching its first flight in January 2020. The 233rd Squadron has flown nearly 300 hours with its MQ-9A Block 5 aircraft and is steadily building the expertise of its crewmembers and maintainers as the SpAF moves towards declaring the Initial Operational Capability for the system.
November 9/20: UAE Weapon Deal CNN reported on November 6, that the US State Department sent Congress an informal notification of plans to sell $10 billion of defense equipment, including precision-guided munitions, non-precision bombs and missiles to the United Arab Emirates. This was told to CNN by a congressional aide. The informal notification about the ordnance came just after President Donald Trump’s administration informed Congress it planned to sell sophisticated armed aerial drones (MQ-9Bs) to the UAE. Reuters had first reported on this. According to the news agency, a State Department spokesman declined comment, saying its policy was not to confirm or comment on proposed defense sales until Congress is formally notified. Both of the recent informal notifications came after last week’s notification of a potential sale of F-35 fighter jets to the Middle East country.
November 4/20: Taiwan’s Sea Guardian Reuters reported that the US State Department could notify Congress on the sale of four MQ-9 Sea Guardian unmanned air vehicles to Taiwan this week. The report said the sale “has crossed a key hurdle in Congress and is at the last stage of approval.” The $600 million deal would be the first such sale since US policy on the export of sophisticated and closely guarded drone technology was loosened by the Trump administration. The formal notification gives Congress 30 days to object to any sales, but this is unlikely given broad bipartisan support for the defense of Taiwan.
October 5/20: Hellfire A new software upgrade for the MQ-9 will now allow the unmanned air vehicle to carry up to eight AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. Known as the MQ-9 Operational Flight Program 2409, the new upgrade will allow the drone to carry the missiles on the outboard wing stations that were previously reserved for JDAMs and fuel tanks only. Hellfire is an air-to-ground, laser guided, subsonic missile with significant anti-tank capacity. It can also be used as an air-to-air weapon against helicopters or slow-moving fixed-wing aircraft.
August 26/20: Reconnaissance Services General Atomics Aeronautical Systems won a $15.5 million contract modification, that adds performance for site relocation activities and exercises an option to extend intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance services utilizing contractor-owned/contractor-operated MQ-9 unmanned air systems. The Reaper is a UAV capable of remotely controlled or autonomous flight operations. The MQ-9 Reaper has an operational ceiling of 50,000ft, a maximum internal payload of 800lb and external payload over 3,000lb. It can carry up to four Hellfire II anti-armor missiles and two laser-guided bombs (GBU-12 or EGBU-12) and 500lb GBU-38 JDAM (joint direct attack munition). In May 2008, a USAF Reaper successfully test dropped four Raytheon GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II 500lb bombs, which have laser and GPS guidance. Work will take place in Arizona, California and other locations outside the continental US. Expected completion is in December 2020.
August 17/20: Belgium General Atomics von a $188.9 million contract action for Belgium MQ-9B SkyGuardian procurement. This contract provides for four MQ-9B unmanned air vehicles, two Certifiable Ground Control Stations, spares and support equipment. The MQ-9 Reaper is the primary offensive strike unmanned aerial vehicle for the US Air Force. Given its significant loiter time, wide-range sensors, multi-mode communications suite, and precision weapons, it provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination, and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets. Work will take place in Poway, California. Estimated completion is March 31, 2024.
June 26/20: Support Services System Dynamics International won a $28.7 million contract for MQ-9 unmanned aerial system aircrew and support services. This award is the result of a competitive acquisition and five offers were received. The MQ-9 Reaper is an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft that is employed primarily against dynamic execution targets and secondarily as an intelligence collection asset. Work will take place in California and Arizona. Estimated completion date is June 30, 2025.
June 24/20: Two More for Marines General Atomics won a $26.9 million deal that procures two MQ-9A Reaper unmanned air systems (UAS); one dual control mobile ground control station; one modular data center; and one mobile ground control station for Group 5 UAS intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance services/persistent strike efforts. The MQ-9 Reaper is a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle used for surveillance and strike operations. The Reaper is a battle-proven development of the RQ-1 Predator, upgraded for longer endurance, a heavier payload, and the ability to launch heavier precision munitions in a benign aerial environment. The Marine Corps selected the Reaper in 2018 to fill an urgent needs request for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in support of forward operations in Southwest Asia. Work will take place in Yuma, Arizona as well as various locations outside the continental US. Estimated completion will be by December 2020.
February 12/20: Service Funding General Atomics Aeronautical Systems won a $7.8 million contract modification, which provides for Group 5 Unmanned Air System intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance services. The services are in support of outside the continental US Task Force Southwest and US Marine Corps operations utilizing contractor-owned/contractor-operated MQ-9 Unmanned Air Systems. The MQ-9 Reaper is the primary offensive strike Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for the US Air Force. Given its significant loiter time, wide-range sensors, multi-mode communications suite, and precision weapons, it provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination, and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets. Reapers can also perform the following missions and tasks: intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, close air support, combat search and rescue, precision strike, buddy-laser, convoy/raid overwatch, route clearance, target development, and terminal air guidance. Work will take place in Yuma, Arizona and Poway, California as well as other locations. Estimated completion date is May 2020.
January 7/20: Iran According to Reuters, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe repeated his plans to deploy the Self-Defense Forces to the Middle East to ensure the safety of its ships, even as tensions in the region erupt in the wake of the United States’ killing of one of Iran’s top military commanders. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose country has a military alliance with the US and good ties with Iran, told a news conference Monday that Tokyo was deeply concerned about rising tensions. The comments were Abe’s first since the attack, and came hours after Iran said it would abandon limits on uranium enrichment, leaving a landmark 2015 nuclear deal dead in all but name. Trump has doubled down on threats to Iran, saying Sunday that cultural sites are among 52 targets he plans to hit if Iran retaliates for Qassem Soleimani’s death. A US strike killed Soleimani on January 3 at Baghdad International Airport, along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of the Iran-backed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces. At least six people were killed in the strike. The attack was fired from the MQ-9 Reaper drone of the US Air Force.
December 24/19: France General Atomics Aeronautical Systems won a $43.7 million contract action for France contractor logistics support MQ-9 Block 5 and Block 1 aircraft.  This contract provides logistics support activities including depot repair, life cycle sustainment and software maintenance services for the French Air Force MQ-9 Block 5 and Block 1 aircraft.  The French Reaper gained its first weapons capability recently during a firing campaign from Niamey airbase in Niger on December 15 to 17. Four evaluation drops were conducted from Niamey as part of the ‘Barkhane’ operation. In 2014, France’s first MQ-9 flight took off from Niger. The first two Reapers to enter French service are designated Block 1 and use US equipment; further orders are to be modified with European payloads such as sensors and datalinks. Work will take place in Poway, California and expected completion will be on December 31, 2020.
October 28/19: France General Atomics won a $17.9 million contract action for the France MQ-9 Block 5 weaponization and Foreign Military Sales Pod Integration effort. The deal provides for the weaponization of the French Air Force MQ?9 Block 5 aircraft and integration of the FMS Pod onto the French Air Force MQ?9 Block 5 aircraft. The MQ-9 Reaper is a UAV capable of remotely controlled or autonomous flight operations. It is the first hunter-killer UAV designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance. The UAV, which is sometimes also called Predator B, has an endurance of over 27 hours, a speed of 240 knots true airspeed, can operate at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet, and has a 3,850 pound payload capacity that includes 3,000 pounds of external stores. Work will take place Poway, California, and estimated completion is in November 30, 2021.
October 25/19: UK SkyGuardian General Atomics won a not-to-exceed firm-fixed-price undefinitized contract modification for the United Kingdom MQ-9B Protector program. The contract modification provides for the design, development, integration and component level testing of additional capabilities being added to the baseline program. The MQ-9B SkyGuardian is the latest variant of the MQ-9 series RPAS currently operated by the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, France, and soon Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium. MQ-9B adds several key enhancements to the proven MQ-9 series allowing for better performance, lower operating and sustainment costs and access to all classes of airspace. General Atomics will perform work in Poway, California. Estimated completion will be by August 31, 2021.
October 3/19: Aircrew Training Crew Training International won a $42.3 million contract modification for the MQ9 Aircrew Training and Courseware Development contract. The MQ-9 Reaper is the primary offensive strike Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for the US Air Force. Reapers can also perform the following missions and tasks: intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, close air support, combat search and rescue, precision strike, buddy-laser, convoy/raid overwatch, route clearance, target development, and terminal air guidance. The Reaper is part of a remotely piloted aircraft system. A fully operational system consists of several sensor/weapon-equipped aircraft, ground control station, Predator Primary Satellite Link, and spare equipment along with operations and maintenance crews for deployed 24-hour missions. The contract modification is for the exercise of option year one. Work will take place at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada; Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico; March Air Reserve Base, California; and Hancock Air National Guard Base, New York, and is scheduled to be completed by September 30, 2020.
September 4/19: Four More Companies Join SkyGuardian General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) has added four more Belgian companies to its industry team that will support the planned provision of four MQ-9B SkyGuardian UAVs by Belgium. GA-ASI is the leading manufacturer of Remotely Piloted Aircraft systems, radars, electro-optic and related mission systems. In January it announced that it had teamed with five Belgium-based businesses as part of an industrial collaboration effort with the Belgian aerospace and defense industry. AeroSimulators Group (ASG), AIRobot, ALX Systems and Hexagon will join Team SkyGuardian, which already includes the following five Belgium companies: SABCA, Thales Belgium, Esterline, Newtec and DronePort.
August 15/19: Marines Graduate From Basic Sensor Operator Course The US Marine Corps is moving one step closer towards operating its own MQ-9 fleet with the first two Marines graduating from the Basic Sensor Operator Course on August 9. „The graduation of these two lance corporals is a small step in their training,” Marine Liaison to the 558 FTS Major Matthew Bailey said. “It’s probably lost on them how important it is, but this is a major milestone for the Marine Corps UAS community. The two marines will be assigned as sensor operators for the MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Aircraft System. The MQ-9 Reaper is the primary offensive strike Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for the US Air Force. Given its significant loiter time, wide-range sensors, multi-mode communications suite, and precision weapons, it provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination, and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets. The Marine Corps in March laid out plans to establish their own MQ-9 Force. The Marine Corps has been on a path to expand it’s UAS assets and enhance intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. This brings the push for expanding into group five UAS’. Group five UAVs can weigh in above 1320 pounds, normally fly higher than 18,000 feet above sea level, and at any speed. These assets can stay in the air longer, with a much larger payload, and observe a much larger area.
July 9/19: From Poland to Romania The US Air Force announced in a press release that it temporarily relocated its Polish MQ-9 Reapers to Romania, while the runway at Miroslawiec undergoes construction. The UAVs had begun flying out of Miros?awiec Air Base in northwestern Poland in May 2018. The MQ-9 Reaper is an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft that is employed primarily against dynamic execution targets and secondarily as an intelligence collection asset. With its significant loiter time, wide-range sensors, multi-mode communications suite, and precision weapons, it provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination, and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets. The detachment is a geographically separated unit assigned to the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, whose mission is to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance in order to meet combatant commander objectives. It has not been revealed how many Reapers had been stationed in Poland and now Romania.
June 19/19: Great Britain General Atomics Aeronautical Systems won a $91 million contract to support the UK’s MQ-9A Contractor Logistics Support Phase IV Program. The deal provides for depot repair, life cycle sustainment, and software maintenance services. The Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle is able to perform remotely controlled autonomous flight operations. The UK operates Reapers since 2006. In 2007 the UK’s defense ministry deployed the MQ-9A to Afghanistan. Since 2014 the Royal Air Force’s Reapers are part of the Operation Shader, the United Kingdom’s contribution to US-led military intervention against the Islamic State. The drone has an endurance of over 27 hours, a speed of 240 knots true airspeed, can operate at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet, and has a 1,746 kg payload capacity that includes 1,361 kg of external stores. General Atomics will perform work under the new contract in Poway, California and is expected to be finished by September 30, 2021. The contract involves 100 percent FMS funds to the UK.
June 3/19: Afghanistan The US Navy awarded General Atomics a $36.5 million modification for nine months of Group 5 unmanned air system intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance services. Group 5 indicates that the unmanned aerial vehicles are in the largest category of Defense Department classifications at greater than 1,320 pounds and functioning at altitudes above 18,000 feet. Specifically, the services are for Task Force Southwest and Marine Corps operations utilizing contractor-owned/contractor-operated MQ-9 unmanned air systems. Task Force Southwest is an American operation in Afghanistan under NATO’s Operation Resolute. It conducts security force assistance to train, advise, and assist missions to enable credible and sustainable Afghan National Defense and Security Forces in southwestern Afghanistan. The drones can carry precision guided bombs and missiles. The Reapers provide a wide-area persistent surveillance capability with the help of the so called Gorgon Stare System, which consists of nearly 370 individual cameras that can simultaneously grab imagery across a 40-square mile zone. Analysts can combine those images into a single mosaic map and look for significant changes or patterns of activity and track vehicles and personnel movements over large areas. General Atomics will perform work within the US and outside the continental US. Scheduled completion date is in February next year.
May 31/19: France BAE Systems won a $39.5 million contract action for the French MQ-9 FMS Sensor Pod effort. The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper or Predator B is a UAV capable of remotely controlled or autonomous flight operations. It is the first hunter-killer UAV designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance. The drone is designed primarily for attack missions but can also be used for surveillance, close air support and reconnaissance. The MQ-9 has a a high cruise speed, a flight ceiling up to 40,000 feet and can carry a larger sensor and weapons payload than its predecessors. France introduced the Reaper in 2013, when it requested the purchase of 16 MQ-9 aircraft and associated equipment at a cost of $1.5 billion. The new contract provides for the production of FMS sensor pods, which will be utilized on the French Air Force MQ-9 Block 5 aircraft and Block 30 Mobile Ground Control Stations. Work will take place in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is scheduled to be finished by April 30, 2023.
May 3/19: Pro Line Fusion for End-to-end Flight Collins Aerospace announced that it had supported the first end-to-end flight of General Atomic Aeronautical Systems’ MQ-9B SkyGuardian Remotely Piloted Aircraft in civil airspace. The flight took place at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona on March 12. General Atomics used the Collins Aerospace Pro Line Fusion integrated avionics system as part of the interface for the flight’s ground control station. The integration of the FAA-certified Pro Line Fusion into UAS ground control stations helps to bring together a multitude of data inputs such as weather, airspace information, mission data, SAR pattern flight management and notice to airmen notifications, providing real-time mission optimization and a common operating picture for the operator.
April 2/19: Spain General Atomics Aeronautical Systems won $34.3 million from the US Air Force to deliver Spain’s final two MQ-9 Block 5 Reaper drones. Spain had already ordered two Reaper UAVs in 2017. The Block 5 Reaper is fitted with a Raytheon AN/ALR-69A radar warning receiver and an electronic warfare suite can also fitted to an underwing pylon. The contract involves 100 percent Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to Spain. Recent FMS contracts for the MQ-9 Reaper involved the Netherlands and the UK. The Reaper is capable of remotely controlled or autonomous flight operations. Work will take place in Poway, California and is scheduled to be complete by March 31, 2020.
March 29/19: SykGuardian to Belgium The US Department of State approved a deal for Belgium to procure General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) MQ-9B SkyGuardian Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). The proposed sale also includes related equipment and the cost is estimated at $600 million. The approval specifically covers four SkyGuardian medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and two fixed ground control stations (GCSs), as well as sensors, ancillary equipment, training, and a five-year support package. Belgium plans to use the SkyGuardian for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) in support of national, NATO, United Nation-mandated, and other coalition operations. The SkyGuardian is a next-generation, type-certifiable variant of Predator B (MQ-9B) multi-mission remotely piloted aircraft. It can carry out missions such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), maritime patrol, border surveillance and disaster relief.
March 25/19: Netherlands The US Air Force contracted General Atomics $123.3 million for four MQ-9 Reaper drones for the Netherlands. The deal also includes four Mobile Ground Stations, spares, and support equipment. The typical MQ-9 system consists of multiple aircraft, ground control station, communications equipment, maintenance spares, as well as personnel. The military crew includes a pilot, sensor operator, and Mission Intelligence Coordinator. The drone has a 950 horsepower turboprop, which brings the aircraft to a maximum speed of approximately 260 knots or 300 mph. Weapons that can be installed on the Reaper include the Hellfire missiles and 500-Ib laser-guided bomb units. In 2015, the US State Department approved the sale of MQ-9 Reapers to the Netherlands. The proposed sale included four aircraft, four ground stations, six engines, General Atomics’ Lynx synthetic aperture radar with Maritime Wide Area Search capability, targeting systems and other equipment. However, the sale was postponed and just recently, in July 2018 the Dutch government signed a Letter of Acceptance for the acquisition through the Foreign Military Sales process. General Dynamics will perform work in Poway, California and is expecting to be finished by the end of 2020.
March 8/19: Fully Operational in Poland The US Air Force achieved full operational capability of the the MQ-9 Reaper at Miroslawiec Air Base in Poland. The General Atomics-developed remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) have been operating out of Poland since May. The UAV is capable of remotely controlled or autonomous flight operations. It is the first hunter-killer UAV designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance. The Reaper is a larger, heavier, and more capable aircraft than its predecessor, the MQ-1 Predator. It is planned to be in service into the 2030s. Air Forces in Europe christened a new set of facilities at Miroslawiec Air Base, Poland on March 1 to help accommodate the Air National Guardsmen and contractors operating Reapers there. The Air Force chose Poland for the mission because of its strategic location in Europe. RPA aircraft are now operated by both contractors and US military personnel. The US military now shares control of the Reapers at Miroslawiec during takeoff, flight and aircraft recovery with the contractors.
February 8/19: Tests The Missile Defense Agency awarded General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems with a $30.9 million modification to demonstrate passive Missile Defense Agency configured MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Ballistic Missile Defense System tests. The MQ-9 Reaper is a UAV with an operational ceiling of 50,000ft, a maximum internal payload of 800lb and external payload exceeding 3,000lb. The MQ-9 is the first hunter-killer UAV designed for long-endurance and high altitude surveillance. It consists of a 950-shaft-horsepower turboprop engine. Aircrew in the Ground Control Station monitor the aircraft including weapons employment. Work under the modification will be performed in San Diego, California.

December 26/18: USAF Reaper support The US Air Force is ordering support and services for its fleet of MQ-9 Reapers from General Atomics. The cost-plus-fixed-fee and firm-fixed-price contract is valued at $291 million and provides for program management efforts, logistics support, configuration management, technical manual and software maintenance, contractor field service representative support, inventory control point management, flight operations support, depot repair, and depot field maintenance. The MQ-9 can serve in multiple roles like surveillance and support of ground troops as well as emergency search and rescue and other missions. Work will be performed at GA’s Poway, California factory. Performance is expected to be completed by December 31, 2019.

December 6/18: France General Atomics is being contracted to support France’s fleet of MQ-9 UAVs. Priced at $26.7 million, the contract provides for contractor logistics support phase three and involves 100% Foreign Military Sales to France. France bought six MQ-9 Reaper Block 1 UAVs in a roughly $600 million deal back in 2014. In August 2018 General Atomics was awarded a $123 million procurement contract for six additional MQ-9 Reapers in their latest Block 5 version. They should be delivered to the French Air Force by May 1, 2020. France’s MQ-9s are currently just able to perform surveillance missions, however the air force plans to weaponize the platforms sometime between 2019 and 2020. The Reaper is a single-engine, turbo-prop, remotely piloted armed reconnaissance aircraft designed to operate over-the-horizon at medium altitude for long endurance. Work will be performed at GAASI’s factory in Poway, California and is expected to be completed in December 31, 2019.

November 23/18: Belgium The Belgian government is advancing in its MQ-9B acquisition program. The Belgian MoD will now start negotiations with the US Government to acquire the SkyGuardian UAS. The SkyGuardian is a NATO-standard variant of the B-model Predator. The Sky Guardian has a 13-foot longer wingspan than the Predator-B, a more damage tolerant composite airframe with double the service life, nearly twice the operational endurance and a greater payload capacity. “We look forward to providing our unmanned aircraft systems to meet Belgium’s mission requirements, while also supporting the NATO Alliance,” said Linden Blue, CEO of GA-ASI. “We are also eager to work with our industrial partners in Belgium on a host of activities ranging from manufacturing to maintenance.” The MQ-9B also flys for the UK Royal Air Force, where it is the main platform of the country’s Protector program.

November 19/18: Canberra opts Australia is opting for General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper to fulfil its AIR 7003 requirement. Project AIR 7003 will see the delivery of medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial system (UAS). Australian ministers for Defense, Christopher Pyne, and Defense Industry, Steven Ciobo, jointly announced the selection of the Reaper over IAI’s Heron TP on November 16. GA says that its MQ-9 is a system fully-interoperable with Australia’s allies, including the US, the UK and France. “These new aircraft will provide enhanced firepower and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support to a range of missions,” said Cristopher Pyne, adding, “The aircraft will be operated under the same laws of armed conflict, international human rights law, and rules of engagement as manned aircraft.” The Team Reaper Australia includes nine other companies: Cobham Australia, CAE Australia, Raytheon Australia, Flight Data Systems, TAE Aerospace, Rockwell Collins, Ultra Electronics Australia, Airspeed, and Quickstep Holdings Ltd.

November 7/18: More systems needed General Atomics is being contracted to build more MQ-9 Reapers for the US Air Force. The company will produce several units in their FY2018 configuration at a cost of $263.4 million. The Reaper is a single-engine, turbo-prop, remotely piloted armed reconnaissance aircraft designed to operate over-the-horizon at medium altitude for long endurance. Funding for US SOCOM procures Special Operations Force-unique kits, payloads and modifications. The MQ-9 UAS is comprised of an aircraft segment, consisting of aircraft configured with an array of sensors that includes day/night Full Motion Video (FMV), Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) sensor payloads; avionics, data links and weapons; a Ground control segment consisting of a Launch and Recovery Element, and a Mission Control Element with embedded Line-of-Sight and Beyond-Line-of-Sight communications equipment. Work will be performed at GA’s factory in Poway, California and is scheduled for completion by November 30, 2021.

November 6/18: Reliability General Atomics is being contracted to improve the MQ-9’s reliability during adverse weather conditions. The $10.7 million cost-plus-fixed-fee contract is awarded by the US Air Force and provides for “MQ-9 weather tolerance activities”. The MQ-9 is a larger and more powerful derivative of the MQ-1. The major difference in layout is the upward V-tail. Environmental factors, such as adverse weather conditions, affect a UAV’s overall reliability and are most often mitigated with operating limitations that restrict the system’s operational value. Environmental factors that can have major effects on an UAV’s reliability include precipitation, icing and wind. Work will be performed at GA’s factory in Poway, California and is expected to be completed by December 31, 2020.

October 30/18: Sky Guardian Belgium’s shopping spree now includes the need for a new MALE UAV platform. A Flight Global report suggests that the European-country is interested in acquiring General Atomics’ MQ-9B Sky Guardian, a NATO-standard variant of the B-model Predator. The Sky Guardian has a 13-foot longer wingspan than the Predator-B, a more damage tolerant composite airframe with double the service life, nearly twice the operational endurance and a greater payload capacity. The new variant is able to fly in civil airspace and is immediately NATO interoperable. Belgian defense minister Steven Vandeput told Flight Global that “MALE drones play an increasingly important role in operations, but at European level there is a shortage of this type of aircraft,” and added “with this purchase, Belgium is joining the future and at the same time we are helping to eliminate a European shortage.” If Belgium opts for the Sky Guardian, it would join existing European MQ-9 operators Italy, France, Spain and the UK.

October 26/18: Comms & Data The US Air Force is procuring a number of depot level maintenance services from L3 Technologies. The awarded contract is valued at $55.3 million and covers the Organic Depot Activation of MQ-9 communications and data link parts. L3’s tactical common datalink is part of the MQ-9 sensor payload, which can also include General Atomics’ Lynx synthetic aperture radar. A common datalink guarantees the interoperability of military systems and helps the military to achieve information dominance. The common datalink is a family of full duplex, jam-resistant, point-to-point microwave communication links used in imagery and signals intelligence collection systems. Work will be performed at Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania and at the Warner-Robins Air Logistics Complex in Georgia. The contract is set to run through October 21, 2021.

October 18/18: Acquistion suspended Taiwan is suspending a potential MQ-9 FMS request to the US and opts to wait for its domestically produced Tengyun UAV. The Taiwanese Air Force is currently in the process of creating a UAV Reconnaissance Squadron. A deal for the delivery of MQ-8B Fire Scout drones is currently under consideration. Until now it was believed that the Scout will be supplemented with the MQ-9, however the government will now wait for the completion of the Tengyun as it is expected under the country’s national defense autonomy policy. The Tengyun development program is led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and already cost $490 million. The Air Force plans to make a final decision on the purchase after it evaluated and assessed the UAVs in coming trials.

September 21/18: Air-to-Air combat Military.com reports that an MQ-9 Reaper UAV is now capable of engaging aerial targets. The Reaper proved its air-to-air combat capability during a controlled simulation held in November 2017. “It was an MQ-9 versus a drone with a heat-seeking air-to-air missile, and it was direct hit … during a test,” said Col. Julian Cheater, commander of the 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.

September 18/18: GCS retrofit General Atomics is being contracted to upgrade several MQ-9 Ground Control Stations (GCSs). The cost-plus-fixed-fee contract is valued at $92.2 million and provides for MD-1A Block 15 GCS to MD-1A Block 30 GCS retrofits. The upgraded ground station include intuitive interfaces that are designed to make potentially hazardous situations easier to identify and to improve the decision-making process generally. A GCS serves two purposes, it controls the UAV and serves as key component of the data collection and dissemination process. The GCS receives the information collected by a UAV, processes that information, and reroutes it via a datalink to the appropriate end user. Work will be performed at GA’s facility in Poway, California and is scheduled for completion by May 29, 2020.

September 4/18: MTS-B The Air Force is procuring a number of high-definition targeting systems for its MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. Raytheon will produce 127 AN/DAS-4 Multi-Spectral Targeting System Model B (MTS-B) turrets and will upgrade 40 DAS-1A to DAS-4 turrets. The predominantly fixed-price-incentive contractual action for FY 2017 – FY 2018 has a value of $281.9 million. Raytheon’s MTS-B is an electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) and laser detecting-ranging-tracking set. The EO/IR system provides long-range surveillance, high-altitude target acquisition, tracking, range-finding, and laser designation for the Hellfire missile and other laser-guided munitions. MTS-B has been adapted for the high-altitude MQ-9, which has a flying ceiling of 50,000 feet. Work will bet performed at Raytheon’s facility in McKinney, Texas, and is expected to be completed by September 30, 2020.

August 30/18: Romania Defense News reports, that the US Air Force may soon deploy some of its MQ-9 Reapers to Romania’s 71st Air Base at Campia Turzii. According to a Air Force document the service is building a new $950 million hangar that will be able to house medium-altitude, long-endurance drones. The UAV in its ISR configuration will likely conduct support intelligence-gathering operations around eastern Europe and the Black Sea. The upcoming deployment of the Reapers will help the US to generate a real-time picture of Russian activities in the Black Sea. The UAVs will assist in monitoring what ships are moving in and out and can provide early warning of hostile activities.

August 27/18: France The government of France is increasing its remote strike and surveillance capabilities. The European nation is ordering an unspecified number of MQ-9 UAVs from General Atomics. The firm-fixed-price, cost-plus-fixed-fee contract has a value of $123 million and involves foreign military sales to the government. France introduced the Reaper in 2013, when it requested the purchase of 16 MQ-9 aircraft and associated equipment at a cost of $1.5 billion. The drone s designed primarily for attack missions but can also be used for surveillance, close air support and reconnaissance. The MQ-9 has a a high cruise speed, a flight ceiling up to 40,000 feet and can carry a larger sensor and weapons payload than its predecessors. The Reapers can be armed with laser-guided missiles and bombs like the Hellfire and GBU-12 Paveway, as well as GPS-guided GBU-38 JDAMs. Work will be performed at GA’s facility in Poway, California and is expected to be completed on May 1st, 2020.

August 22/18: Sensor development General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems is set to develop a new sensor for the Missile Defense Agency’s MQ-9 UAVs. The cost-plus-award fee contract has a total value of $133.9 million and provides for finalising the development, integration and flight testing of an advanced sensor. The sensor will be evaluated in realistic test scenarios, to be held at various locations inside and outside the continental US. The MQ-9 Reaper is an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft that is employed primarily against dynamic execution targets and secondarily as an intelligence collection asset. The new sensor technology has been in the works for some time. It is designed to significantly improve the ability to track cold body targets through their time of flight and enhance discrimination. The MDA is also planning to equip the MQ-9 with high-energy laser systems that could destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles in the boost phase at long standoff ranges. The sensor will be manufactured at GA’s facility in San Diego California from August 2018 through October 2021.

July 18/18: SAGE integration Leonardo and General Atomics will jointly work on integrating Leonardo’s SAGE electronic warfare surveillance system onto the MQ-9B UAS. SAGE analyses the electromagnetic spectrum across the Land, Sea and Air domains in order to map the source of active emissions. Using highly accurate Direction Finding (DF) antennas, SAGE builds target locations and provides situational awareness, advance warning of threats and the ability to cue other sensors. The sensor with a 360° radar-warning-receiver capability allows to identify the location and parametric data of specific RF emitters from a single platform, thus enhancing the tactical electronic intelligence picture and situational awareness. SAGE is already in service with the South Korean Navy, Brazilian Navy and Indonesian Air Force. The two companies plan to integrate SAGE into the MQ-9B airframe without the need for external pods. First orders will be possible as soon as 2019.

July 17/18: Dutch purchase? The Dutch government is planning to buy four unmanned Reaper drones in the coming week. A Letter of Agreement could be signed next week at the Farnborough International Airshow outside London. When the deal was initially approved by the US State Department in 2015 it had a value of $339 million. The Reaper is 36 feet long, with a 66-foot wingspan and a maximum takeoff weight of 10.500 lb. Its 6 pylons can carry heavier reconnaissance payloads, as well as an impressive array of weapons including JDAM family bombs, Paveway and Sidewinder missiles. The Dutch government said the intent to purchase was announced in 2016 as part of the Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle program.

June 29/18: UK deployment The UK Royal Air Force will soon take delivery of its first MQ-9B SkyGuardian, which will form the basis of the UK’s future Protector RPAS. The MQ-9B SkyGuardian medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely-piloted air system is a version of General Atomics’ Predator B. The aircraft has been developed under a company-funded effort to address the strict airworthiness type-certification requirements of different military and civil authorities. In May last year, MQ-9B SkyGuardian set a 48-hour continuous flight endurance record for the company’s Predator aircraft series. RAF operations with at least 20 Protector RG1s are due to commence during the 2020s. The platform will replace the service’s current armed Reapers.

June 21/18: CENTCOM support US Marine Corps Task Force Southwest is contracting General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to boost its UAS system intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance surge. The un-definitized contract is valued at $39.56 million and will see for General Atomics to fly its own unarmed MQ-9 Reapers in support of US Marines missions in the US Central Command area of operation. General Atomics will provide a single “orbit” supplying coverage over one particular area 16 hours a day, seven days a week. The company could have to conduct missions lasting 24-hours or more in certain cases, but with advance notice. In January NAVAIR awarded a similar contract in support of USMC deployment in Afghanistan. The Marines currently conduct advisory missions in Afghanistan’s infamous Helmand province, as well as portions of neighboring Nimroz province, both of which border Pakistan. Work will be performed in Yuma, Arizona and Poway, California, the CENTCOM’s area of operatio, and is expected to be completed in November 2018.

June 18/18: New SAR for Block 5  The Air Force is contracting General Atomics – Aeronautical Systems in support of its MQ-9 Reaper platform. The contract modification provides for the product ionization of the Lynx Block 20A synthetic aperture radar (SAR) configuration and is valued at $22 million. The new Lynx SAR is set to replace the current configuration of the system on the future MQ-9 Block 5 remotely piloted aircraft. The Reaper packs the same surveillance gear as the famous Predator but is more of a hunter-killer design. The Lynx radar is designed to meet the onboard challenges of the Remotely Piloted Aircraft systems environment, the it consumes minimal Size, Weight, and Power (SWAP) while delivering precision air-to-surface targeting accuracy and superb wide-area search capabilities. Lynx includes two spotlight and two stripmap SAR modes. Spotlight mode produces high-resolution imagery on a defined point. Stripmap mode mosaics multiple spot SAR images together to form one large image. Work will be performed in Poway, California, and is expected to be complete by June 2020.

May 18/18: Block 5 continues General Atomics is being tapped to retrofit the MQ-9 system. The firm-fixed-price, fixed-price-incentive, and cost-plus-fixed-fee contract is valued at $206 million and provides for retrofitting 122 MQ-9 Block 5 aircraft. The MQ-9 Reaper UAV, once called “Predator B,” has been called the first fielded Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV). This UAV is far more of a fighter substitute or close-air support complement than other UAVs. The latest MQ-9 version is the Block 5, formerly known as Block 1+. Improvements focus on 3 areas: power capacity, payload capacity, and communications capacity. Power is improved via a new high-capacity starter generator, and an upgraded electrical system whose new backup generator can support all flight critical functions with a triple redundancy. Payload is improved using new trailing arm heavyweight landing gear, a weapons kit and communications upgrade. Work will be performed at Poway, California, and is expected to be complete by June 20, 2024.

April 30/18: Engine Spares General Atomics has received a US Air Force (USAF) contract modification for spare engines used on the MQ-9 Reaper drones. According to the Pentagon statement released Thursday, April 26, the order calls for the production of an undefined number of spare engines and engine shipping containers at a cost of $36.6 million. Work will be performed in Poway, California, and is expected to be complete by May 31, 2020.

April 02/18: Production orders General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. has been awarded a contract for the production of MQ-9 Reaper aircraft. The contract is valued at over $295 million. Work will be performed in Poway, California, and is scheduled for completion by July 2021. The MQ-9 Reaper UAV, once called “Predator B,” is somewhat similar to the famous Predator, but with a strong hunter-killer design. Some have called it the first fielded Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV). The Reaper is a major asset for the US Air Force, its capability set makes the MQ-9 considerably more expensive than MQ-1 Predators. MQ-9 operators currently include the USA and Britain, who use it in hunter-killer mode, and Italy.

March 14/18: Maintenance & Support URS Federal Technical Services landed a $961 million contract Friday, March 9, for maintenance and support of the US Air Force’s unmanned aircraft fleet. According the agreement, the Maryland-based firm will cover support for MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft and covers an indefinite amount of organizational-level maintenance as well as support of the aircrafts’ launch and recovery activities, as well as their combat and training capability. Work will take place at locations worldwide with a scheduled completion time set for June 30, 2019.

March 12/18: USAF seeks AAM capability As the MQ-1 Predator officially leaves active duty with the US Air Force, the service announced its intentions to equip its replacement—the MQ-9 Reaper—with an air-to-air missile capability. The first steps in the effort has seen the Reaper’s manufacturer General Atomics tasked with developing the Reaper Air-to-Air Missile (RAAM) Aviation Simulation (AVSIM), however, no additional details on requested capabilities have been given. To date, the Reaper has been employed for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike missions only, and the inclusion of air-to-air combat in its mission set would represent a significant expansion of its capabilities.

January 31/18: Contracts-Software General Atomics has been awarded a USAF contract for software development on the MQ-9 Reaper UAV. Valued at $49.3 million, the agreement provides for software development, in addition to sustaining the current MQ-9 Reaper force operated by the Air Force Special Operations Command and Air Combat Command units. Work to take place at Poway, California, and is expected to be complete by January 31, 2020. Fiscal 2017 and 2018 research and development funds in the amount of $9,864,489 are being obligated at the time of the award.

January 9/18: Reaper Block 5 Kits General Atomics received Wednesday, a $14.1 million USAF contract to supply MQ-9 Reaper Block 5 kits to the service, that will include extended-range kits, beyond-line-of-sight kits and Barrett Asymmetrical Digital Datalink Computer Routers. Work will be performed in Poway, California, with an expected completion date of February 21, 2021. The upgrade comes as the USAF starts to phase out the older MQ-1 Predator drone from service, and the kits will go towards upgrading earlier versions of the Reaper to the most modern Block 5 configuration—which gives the UAVs increased electrical power, secure communications, auto land, increased gross takeoff weight, weapons growth, and streamlined payload integration capabilities.

December 8/17: Contracts-Integration-Munitions The GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) is set to become part of the MQ-9 Reaper hunter-killer UAV’s arsenal, after the US Department of Defense (DoD) awarded the drone’s manufacturer—General Atomics—a $17.4 million US Air Force contract to integrate the munition on the platform. The award stated that this will be done by using a universal armament interface on a dual carriage system. Work will take place at the firm’s Poway, California facility, with an expected completion scheduled for November 27, 2021. Weapons already integrated on the Reaper include the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, the 500-pound laser-guided GBU-12 Paveway II bomb, and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), and the SBD will offer its operators the ability to carry four 250-pound bombs with a range of 40 nautical miles, with the bomb’s small size reducing collateral damage and would allow the Reaper to achieve more kills or attack strikes per mission.

September 07/17: French MQ-9 Reapers UAVs in Mali will soon be armed. Six Reapers, scheduled for delivery in 2019, will come armed with Hellfire missiles while the six remaining unarmed UAVs will be armed by 2020. France currently has five unarmed Reaper reconnaissance drones positioned in Niger’s capital Niamey to support its 4,000-strong Barkhane counter-terrorism operation in Africa, and one in France. The armed drones are expected to offer a quick-response to Islamist militants operating in the Sahara region.

August 24/17: General Atomics has flown its MQ-9B SkyGuardian Remotely Piloted Aircraft through unrestricted US airspace for the first time. The August 16 flight saw the aircraft fly for one hour and 45 minutes from Laguna Airfield at Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz., through National Airspace, to the company’s Gray Butte Flight Operations facility near Palmdale, Calif. A GA statement hailed the SkyGuardian as the first “RPA system of its kind with a design-assurance level compliant with international type-certification standards, and can therefore be integrated more easily than legacy RPAs into civil airspace operations around the world.”

July 4/17: The latest version of the MQ-9 Reaper, the Block 5 variant, flew its first successful combat mission, June 23, 2017. The 16-hour flight was in support of Operation Inherent Resolve—the US operation against the Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria—and the UAV dropped a GBU-38 JDAM munition during the mission in addition to two Hellfires. Upgrades found on the Block 5 variant include an improved electrical and communications systems which provides better software and hardware upgrades for future operations, an a new Block 30 cockpit that required different training for the aircrews.

May 30/17: General Atomics’ new MQ-9B SkyGuardian UAV has set a new flight endurance record by topping 48 hours in the air. The new variant of the Predator B broke the record during a flight at Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz., while carrying 6,065 pounds of internal fuel. It flew between 25,000 and 35,000 feet for the duration of the mission and landed 48.2 hours later. The previous endurance record was held by Predator XP, which flew 46.1 hours in February 2015.

May 19/17: The USAF has awarded a $400 million contract to General Atomics for the production and delivery of 36 MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. The contract comes from acquisition funds already appropriated sole-source acquisition funds from Fiscal 2016. Work will take place at Poway, California, and is expected to be complete by Aug. 31, 2020. The Reaper, the larger and more heavily successor to the MQ-1 Predator, the UAV boasts a cruise speed of 230 mph, a flight ceiling up to 50,000 feet, and a range of 1150 miles, and can carry a payload of up to 3750 lbs. Munitions integrated include the Hellfire laser-guided missiles, GBU-12 Paveway bombs, and GPS-guided GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions.

May 9/17: GKN Aerospace will produce and provide external link a new fuel bladder system for the first production model of General Atomic’s Predator B MQ-9B UAV, scheduled for 2018. An agreement signed between the two firms has a full potential value of $15 million when it enters service with NATO’s UAV airworthiness Requirements. According to GKN, the fuel bladder system will be made in a vacuum forming process using poly-urethane material for shapes that better fit available space on the aircraft airframe.

May 8/17: A MQ-9 Reaper UAV has dropped external link a GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) at a range in Nevada, USA for the first time. By adding the JDAM to the UAV’s arsenal, operators will have a greater opportunity to track targets in bad weather as it utilizes a GPS-guidance system instead of the laser-guided munitions that are currently used, like the AGM-114 Hellfire and GBU-12. The JDAM is also liked by aircrews as it takes ten minutes less to load when compared to the GBU-12, taking 20 minutes to load instead of 30.

March 28/17: A number of US senators have come together in a bipartisan effort to pressure the Trump administration into approving two key defense deals with India. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Mark Warner, D-Va urged Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in joint letters to approve co-production of Lockheed Martin’s F-16 in India and to approve the export of General Atomics’ Guardian, a nonlethal maritime version of the MQ-9 Reaper. Speaking on the F-16 negotiations, the letters stated that a successful deal “will increase interoperability with a key partner and a dominant power in South Asia, build India’s capacity to counter threats from the north, and balance China’s growing military capability in the Pacific,” while on the Guardian UAV deal, the men warned that a failure to go through with the sale “will not only have implications for regional security in the Asia-Pacific, but could also significantly impact the MQ-9 production line and put thousands of US manufacturing jobs at risk.”

February 28/17: Competitor Wing Loong II. China has received their largest foreign order for the indigenous next-generation Wing Loong II UAV. However, the report did not disclose the identity of the buyer or the size of the order. Beijing has been driving to increase their market share of the military drone market at the expense of US and Israeli products, by offering lower-cost technology to customers and a willingness to sell to governments to which Western states will not sell. The Wing Loong II’s predecessor is marketed for $1 million, while the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, to which it has sometimes been compared, is priced at around $30 million.

January 11/17: General Atomics will provide MQ-9 Reaper UAVs to the Spanish government, following a $53 million contract award by the USAF. The order is an adjustment to an existing basic ordering agreement between the United States and Spain. In 2015, Madrid selected the Reaper over the Heron TP to perform homeland security, counter-insurgency, and counter-terrorism operations. The procurement is expected to cost some $181 million over five years.

January 6/17: General Atomics has been contracted by the US government to provide MQ-9 Reaper UAVs to Spain. The $56 million is an adjustment to an existing basic ordering agreement between Washington and Madrid and work is expected to be complete by January 31, 2019. Last February, Spain ordered four aircraft and associated control stations from General Atomics, in what the company says represents one complete Reaper system. The total value of Spain’s Reaper package, along with associated support and equipment, could reach as much as $243 million.

December 6/16: Contracts have been signed between General Atomics and the UK government to develop new UAVs. The company will equip existing drone technology into new remotely piloted aircraft for the RAF, in a deal worth $127 million. 20 Protector UAVs will be developed under the program and will replace the current fleet of 10 MQ-9 Reapers.

October 28/16: It’s been reported that the US military is using bases in Tunisia to conduct surveillance drone operations against Islamic State militants in Libya with unarmed MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. However Tunisian sources have denied that the drones have been in Libyan airspace and instead are being used for training Tunisian forces and protecting the country’s borders. Following attacks by jihadists in a popular vacation destination in 2015, Washington has given more than $250 million in security assistance to Tunisia while the UK has provided personnel to train Tunisian forces.

September 30/16: Building is underway by the US military of a $100 million facility for the use of MQ-9 Reaper operations in the region. The news comes less than a year after the announcement was made that Reaper and Predator bases in Ethiopia and Djibouti would be closed. MQ-9s operated from East African bases are used primarily for missions against Islamic insurgents such as al-Shabaab in Somalia and AQAP in Yemen.

August 24/16: General Atomics has been contracted by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to develop a laser tracking system for the MQ-9 Reaper UAV. Valued at $9.6 million, the contract will set the company to design, build and test in the lab key laser subsystems to demonstrate precision tracking. Furthermore, the company will develop and demonstrate an MQ-9 flight representative laser system with the beam train optics required to upgrade a multi-spectral targeting system for use as an active tracking sensor.

August 19/16: General Atomics is to provide 30 MQ-9 Reaper UAVs to the USAF. The $370.9 million contract will be completed by May 31, 2019.

August 8/16: MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper pilots are to undergo a fifteen-day course in electric warfare missions. The USAF program will see pilots gain training so that they can continue to operate their UAV when under electronic attack such as jamming of their satellite uplinks. Once completed, they will be known as Electronic Combat Officers.

June 27/16: India has issued a Letter of Request (LoR) to the US government over the potential purchase of 22 General Atomics Guardians, a maritime patrol variant of the MQ-9 Predator B. A letter of acceptance from the US will follow later in the year which will trigger the commencement of price negotiations over the UAVs with a final contract to be signed sometime in 2017-18. It is unclear, however, whether the Indian Navy will acquire the non-weaponized Guardian variant – featuring intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities – the weaponized one, or both.

June 3/16: MQ-9 UAVs operated by the Italian Air Force are to be fitted with General Atomics integrated Rafael RecceLite reconnaissance pod. Flight testing will be carried out in early 2017 at Amendola Air Base, Italy. The company believes that the adoption of the system “could lead to similar efforts with other NATO customers that operate MQ-9.”

May 5/16: An upgrade to automate takeoff and landing of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs is being pursued by the USAF, making training Reaper pilots easier and allowing access to more runways. A similar upgrade already exists on US Army MQ-1C Grey Eagles. According to General Atomics’ senior director of strategic development, Chris Pehrson, the air force tried last year to shift money from other accounts to begin implementing the automatic takeoff and landing system, but the request was denied by Congress.

April 28/16: After numerous delays in its maiden flight which occurred last week amid much excitement from manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), the X-2 stealth demonstrator will have a year long test campaign involving around 50 flights. With the maiden flight described as “ordinary” by Hirofumi Doi, manager of Japan’s Future Fighter Program at the defence ministry’s Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency (ATLA), future testing will help ATLA gather data on advanced fighter technologies such as stealth, thrust vectoring, data links, and other areas. Depending on this data, flight testing of the X-2 could easily be extended, leading the way for a potentially busy period for the demonstrator.

March 22/16: The USAF and Honeywell are investigating a still-undetermined problem with the starter-generator on the MQ-9 Reaper Block 1 version’s Honeywell turboprop engine. Seventeen MQ-9 crashes have been avoided since last April, however, thanks to a backup electrical system that has been installed as a safeguard, which allows for the aircraft to fly for another ten hours. Since the UAV’s first flight, the USAF have lost dozens during missions, at a cost of $20-25 million per aircraft. This has intensified in 2015, as the steeping up of anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Africa saw 10 MQ-9 and 10 MQ-1 crashes in that last year alone.

February 19/16: General Atomics has received a contract to provide four unarmed MQ-9 Reaper UAVs and two Block 30 ground control stations to Spain. While Madrid may seek to arm the UAVs in future, it requires authorization from the US government before it can do so. However, this may not be too much of an issue, as both the UK and Italy have already been granted permission to arm their fleets with precision guided missiles such as the AGM-114 Hellfire. While the initial foreign sales notice posted by the US in October cites the cost of the hardware at $80 million, the total cost of procurement, training and logistical support could see that cost more in the region of $243 million.

January 21/16: A second MQ-9 Reaper UAV system will be delivered to France by October 2017 after the US DoD announced contracts on Tuesday. Work and delivery of the system is set to cost $47.7 million and will be carried out by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. The awarding of the contract follows the December order of a third batch of Reaper systems by France set for delivery in 2019. France has been operating the UAVs on missions on the African continent, primarily in the Sahel-Saharan region. The MQ-9s will most likely continue to be operated until a pan-European UAV development project is completed which will see a drone developed jointly by France, Germany and Italy.

December 28/15: After two decades, General Atomics will cease production of the RQ-1 Predator UAV after the final two were delivered to the Italian Air Force. While not officially confirmed, it is believed that the Italians operate nine RQ-1s for intelligence gathering. Furthermore, they have procured six of the RQ-1’s successor, the MQ-9 Reaper which have recently been approved by the US government to carry weapons. The aircraft are primarily utilized by the Italians over the Mediterranean Sea and in support of NATO operations.

November 6/15: The State Department has approved a Foreign Military Sale contract to weaponize the Italian Air Force’s fleet of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. The DSCA request included AGM-114R2 Hellfire II missiles, JDAM guided bombs and launchers, with the possible deal estimated to value $129.6 million. General Atomics will be the prime contractor for the potential sale, the US government having relaxed export restrictions in February, with the weaponization of the Italian Reapers representing the second international customer to operate armed MQ-9s. The Royal Air Force is the sole weaponized operator outside of the US.

November 4/15: Spain’s cabinet has approved a proposed acquisition of four MQ-9 Reaper Block 5 UAVs from the US, following State Department approval of a DSCA request by the country’s Defense Ministry in October. The $177 million procurement saw the General Atomics design – favored by the Spanish Air Force – beat off competition from Israel Aerospace Industries’ Heron TP. The contract’s value will be spread over a multi-year contract until 2020, with Spanish firm SENER acting as General Atomics’ partner. Elsewhere in Europe, the Netherlands also requested four of the same aircraft in February, with the United Kingdom operating armed Reapers.

October 30/15: The deputy head of the Air Force ISR wants to counteract a shortfall in MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper operators by compressing the current two-person arrangement into a single role. The conversion would require changes to the system’s ground station, with Air Force officials keen to maximise manpower efficiency in the face of high drop-out rates for drone pilots.

October 8/15: The State Department has given the green light to Spain acquiring four MQ-9 Reaper Block 5 UAVs, through a potential acquisition valued at $243 million along with auxiliary equipment and services. The Spanish Defence Ministry set aside money in its 2016 budget for the four UAVs, which it reportedly opted to sole-source from manufacturer General Atomics. The Reapers will be used exclusively for ISR, with the United Kingdom the only nation currently operating armed Reapers outside of the US, with the Netherlands also requesting four MQ-9s in February. Spain’s proposed sale will now be referred to Congress for approval.

September 28/15: General Atomics has unveiled a new capability for its MQ-9B Guardian maritime UAV, presenting a sonobuoy capability along with other modifications to the Royal Navy in a bid to market the Guardian as an unmanned maritime patrol aircraft to supplement the likely procurement of a manned maritime patrol aircraft. Calls from industry for the UK’s Defence Ministry to run a competition for its future maritime patrol aircraft are growing louder, with Northrop Grumman thought to be considering an offer of their RQ-4C Triton as another unmanned option in addition to the Guardian.

August 7/15: Spain has decided to buy four unarmed MQ-9 Reaper UAVs, along with two ground stations. The fifth European country to purchase the Reaper, the Spanish defense ministry has allocated $186.9 million for the acquisition. The United Kingdom, France and Italy operate the Reaper, with the Netherlands requesting four in February.

August 5/15: The Air Force’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) has recommended adding new sensors, weapons and countermeasures to MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs to increase survivability and lethality in contested airspace. The SAB is also pushing for Manned-Unmanned Teaming, something already baked into the latest iteration of the AH-64E Block III Apache, with tests in June demonstrating the helicopter operating alongside a MQ-1C Gray Eagle, with the UAV assisting in target-painting and surveillance. A full report on the topic – ‘Enhanced Utility of Unmanned Air Vehicles In Contested and Denied Environments’ – will be published in December.

June 5/15: The UK and France are exploring the possibility of collaborating for Reaper UAV training, logistics and support services. The British operate ten of the aircraft, with these all deployed on operations over Iraq, with France taking delivery of a third Reaper at the end of May, with twelve set to be delivered by 2019.

May 21/15: General Atomics was awarded a production contract for eight additional MQ-9 Reaper Block 5 UAVs on Wednesday, with this $72.1 million contract following a similar $279.1 million order for 24 of the aircraft last month.

July 2/14: Germany. The whole subject of UAVs remains very contentious along left-right lines (q.v. Nov 14/13), as a long Defence Committee hearing on June 30/14 demonstrated once again. But German Defence Minister Dr. Ursula von der Leyen [CDU] has now stated her support for buying UAVs that can carry weapons, on the condition that the German Bundestag would vote to send them on any foreign missions, and decide whether they should be armed.

That would seemingly favor the MQ-9 in the short term, but she stated her satisfaction with the current leasing program for Heron-1 UAVs, which can be continued without sparking a divisive armed UAV debate in the Bundestag. Over the longer term, she also spoke in favour of developing “a European armed drone.” The NSA remains the political gift that keeps on giving to non-American defense sector competitors:

“Once again, the NSA affair has made it clear to me what it means to lie dormant through 10 to 15 years of technological development and suddenly face the bitter reality of how dependent one is on others…. Europe needs the capabilities of a reconnaissance drone so it is not permanently dependent on others.”

The challenge is that European partners want a UAV that can carry weapons, so Germany probably needs to accept that in order to find partners. Time will tell. Source: Euractiv, “German defence minister backs ‘European armed drone’”.

June 26/14: Upgrades. General Atomics – Aeronautical Systems, Inc. in Poway, CA receives a $15.3 million firm-fixed-price sole-source contract for the MQ-9 Fuel Bladder Retrofit Kits, Time Compliance Technical Orders (TCTO) and initial spares. The certified O-level TCTOs enable the removal of existing Aero Tech Labs fuel bladders, and enable the installation of the new fuel bladders on MQ-9 Reaper Block 1 aircraft. GA-ASI will also update existing technical orders and manuals, and deliver initial retrofit spares. All funds are committed immediately, using FY 2012 & 2013 USAF aircraft budgets.

Work will be performed in Poway, CA, and is expected to be complete by March 6/17. USAF Life Cycle Management Center’s, Medium Altitude Unmanned Aircraft Systems group at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH manages the contract (FA8620-10-G-3038, DO 0071).

May 9/14: Australia. Air Marshal Geoff Brown tells Fairfax Media that he’d like to see Australia buy some MQ-9s. Australia has trialed MQ-9s in a maritime border patrol role (q.v. May-September 2006). Their military intends to move ahead with the jet-powered MQ-4C Global Hawk derivative that won the US Navy BAMS competition, but an MQ-9 fleet bought to support the Army would likely find itself on call to support Coast Guard duties as well. That could be done with standard equipment, as Italy has done (q.v. Jan 15/14), or via additional buys to obtain SeaVue radars like the MQ-9 Guardians operated by US Customs (q.v. Dec 7/09). Brown:

“I’m a great fan of capabilities that have a very multi-role aspect to them, and I think Predator-Reaper does have that… I think the combination of a good ISR platform that’s weaponized is a pretty legitimate weapon system for Australia…. I’d love to have [MQ-4C] Triton tomorrow… I’d certainly like to have Predator-Reaper capability as well, and I’d like to bring [our rented fleet of IAI’s] Heron back so we build on those skills that we’ve got.”

He’s thinking in terms of the next 5 years, and the place to set that in motion would be the coming Force Structure Review. Sources: Sydney Morning Herald, “Air Force wants to buy deadly Reaper drones”.

April 17/14: SAR. The Pentagon releases its Dec 31/13 Selected Acquisitions Report. For the MQ-9:

“Program costs decreased $1,451.8 million (-10.9%) from $13,318.2 million to $11,866.4 million, due primarily to a quantity decrease of 58 aircraft from 401 to 343 (-$962.1 million), associated schedule, engineering, and estimating allocations (+$66.9 million), and areduction of initial spares and support equipment related to the decrease in quantity (-$432.9 million). There were additional decreases for the removal of the Airborne Signals Intelligence payload 2C (ASIP 2C) requirement (-$280.1 million) and sequestration reductions (-$142.5 million). These decreases were partially offset by increases for a warfighter requirement for extended range retrofits and communications requirements (+$138.9 million) and the addition of production line shut down costs that were not previously estimated (+$132.7 million).”

Program cuts

March 31/14: GAO Report. The US GAO tables its “Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs“. Which is actually a review for 2013, plus time to compile and publish. The MQ-9 Block 5’s manufacturing issues include “delinquencies in completing technical data, software delays, and fuel tank issues”; the latter were severe enough that they required production line changes and fleet retrofits. As a result, deliveries were slowed, operational testing had to move back from October 2014 to January 2016, and Block 5 software won’t be fully fielded until March 2016. Meanwhile,

“As of December 2013, 21 Block 1 aircraft have been produced, but are still awaiting the necessary software capability upgrades before they can be delivered. Until these software upgrades are complete, aircraft are only being delivered based on urgent needs. According to program officials, the program has developed an aircraft delivery recovery plan that should allow deliveries to be back on track by April 2014.”

Since more than half of the planned fleet will have been manufactured before a “Full Rate Production Decision” is made, the Pentagon has decided to have an “in-process review” in February 2016 instead.

March 26/14: Weapons. An MQ-9 successfully finishes December 2013 – January 2014 tests at US Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, CA, firing MBDA’s dual-mode radar/laser Brimstone missile against a variety of targets. The Brimstone is similar to the Reaper’s regular laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfire, with a slightly longer range, a fire-and-forget radar seeker, a “man in the loop” feature, and the ability to deploy on fast jets. Consolidating on the Brimstone would let the RAF use a single weapon type for short-range light strike.

The test was a cooperative effort between Britain and the United States (q,v, May 3/13), and all of the RAF’s primary and secondary trial objectives were met. Brimstone isn’t formally integrated onto the MQ-9, but it looks as if that’s about to change. Sources: MBDA, “MBDA’s Brimstone Demonstrates its Precision Low Collateral Capability from Reaper”.

March 4-11/14: FY15 Budget. The US military slowly files its budget documents, detailing planned spending from FY 2014 – 2019. The FY 2015 request supports the procurement of 12 MQ-9 UAVs and 12 fixed ground control stations, while funding MQ-9 Extended Range fleet modifications. Deliveries out to 2019 are being cut, but the budget isn’t changing that much because of required investments in spare parts, support infrastructure, and technical data rights.

There are currently 143 MQ-9 aircraft in USAF inventory, with an estimated designed service life of 20,000 hours each. For comparison purpose, that’s about double the total lifespan of an F-16 with life-extension refits, and slightly longer than a manned Super Tucano turboprop’s ~16-18,000 hours.

Near-term upgrades include new Linux processors, high definition monitors, and ergonomic improvements. Future planned upgrades include integrating improved human-machine interfaces, open systems architecture, improved crew habitability, and multiple aircraft control. Future GCS configurations will leverage the Unmanned Aerospace System (UAS) Command and Control (C2) Initiative (UCI) government-owned open system standard to enable improved capabilities for situational awareness and multi-mission management monitoring and oversight.

Feb 24/14: Budgets. Chuck Hagel’s FY 2015 pre-budget briefing explains that cutbacks are on the way for the drone fleet, but perhaps not the Reapers:

“The Air Force will slow the growth in its arsenal of armed unmanned systems that, while effective against insurgents and terrorists, cannot operate in the face of enemy aircraft and modern air defenses. Instead of increasing to a force of 65 around-the-clock combat air patrols of Predator and Reaper aircraft, the Air Force will grow to 55, still a significant increase. Given the continued drawdown in Afghanistan, this level of coverage will be sufficient to meet our requirements, and we would still be able to surge to an unprecedented 71 combat air patrols under this plan. DoD will continue buying the more capable Reapers until we have an all-Reaper fleet.

If sequestration-level cuts are re-imposed in 2016 and beyond, however, the Air Force would need to make far more significant cuts to force structure and modernization. The Air Force would have to retire 80 more aircraft, including the entire KC-10 tanker fleet and the Global Hawk Block 40 fleet, as well as slow down purchases of the Joint Strike Fighter – resulting in 24 fewer F-35s purchased through Fiscal Year 2019 – and sustain ten fewer Predator and Reaper 24-hour combat air patrols [DID: down to 45]. The Air Force would also have to take deep cuts to flying hours, which would prevent a return to adequate readiness levels.”

Sources: US DoD, “Remarks By Secretary Of Defense Chuck Hagel FY 2015 Budget Preview Pentagon Press Briefing Room Monday, February 24, 2014”.

Feb 5/14: Bandwidth innovation. The USAF touts changes they’ve made to the MQ-9 Reaper, allowing it to relay data through inclined orbit satellites that have become slightly unstable. The satellites’ wobble cuts their leasing costs sharply, so UAVs can cut operating costs by integrating updated satellite location data with software to point their receivers, and having procedures to manage the associated situations. The USAF has successfully tested exactly this kind of system on the MQ-1 and MQ-9 UAVs.

The Jan 28/14 DOT&E report gave the MQ-9 program both barrels for what it saw as lack of organization, and a development culture that pursued off-record efforts at the expense of their planned capabilities. Announcements like this one, and the Feb 5/14 AFSOC report, remind us that less-planned but potentially significant enhancements can add up to important steps forward. Read “I.O. Satellites for UAVs? USAF Reaping Savings” for full coverage.

Feb 5/14: 38 ER conversions. A maximum $117.3 million unfinalized contract will finance conversions to create 38 MQ-9 Extended Range UAVs, with larger wings and more fuel.

$41.5 million committed immediately, using a combination of FY 2013-2014 RDT&E budgets, and the FY 2014 aircraft budget. Work will be performed in Poway, CA, and is expected to be complete by July 7/16. USAF Lifecycle Management Center/WIIK’s Medium Altitude Unmanned Aircraft Systems group at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH manages the contract (FA8620-10-G-3038, #0118).

MQ-9 ER conversions begin

Feb 5/14: AFSOC Support. A $166 million delivery order for “Lead-off Hitter AFSOC MQ-9 Software Line,” which will provide MQ-9 software engineering support for the AFSOC fleet of MQ-9 unmanned aerial systems. In an interesting note about some of the changes underway, the FY 2013 DOT&E report mentioned that:

“AFSOC demonstrated the successful transmission of encrypted, high-definition full motion video from the RPA to remote video terminal-equipped ground units in support of urgent AFSOC capabilities needs. AFOTEC will conduct formal evaluation of full motion video transmission during FOT&E of the MQ-9 Increment One system.”

Work will be performed in Poway, Calif., and is expected to be completed by Feb. 6, 2015. Fiscal 2013 research and development funds in the amount of $2,063,006 are being obligated at time of award. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center/WIIK, Medium Altitude Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, is the contracting activity (FA8620-10-G-3038, DO 0114).

Jan 28/14: DOT&E Testing Report. The Pentagon releases the FY 2013 Annual Report from its Office of the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E). The MQ-9 is included, and the report paints the program as a mess, getting UAVs out the door but tripping over itself elsewhere thanks to the lack of an Integrated Master Schedule, inability to prioritize or meet timelines, and only limited Information Assurance cyber-testing.

The result of these failings, in conjunction with “competing schedule priorities for non-program of record capabilities,” is that the program formally acknowledged an Acquisition Program Baseline (APB) breach in May 2013 and said they couldn’t meet the program of record schedule. The Increment 1/ Block 5 system can’t undergo Full OT&E in FY 2014 as planned, and integration of the GBU-38 JDAM was postponed. Indeed:

“Development, operational testing, and fielding of Increment One program of record capabilities will likely experience continued delays until the program is able to better prioritize and control maturation of these capabilities in accordance with a predictable schedule. Ongoing schedule challenges, combined with RPA production emphasis, increase the likelihood that the MQ-9 UAS will complete the delivery of all planned MQ-9 RPAs under low-rate initial production. FOT&E of the Increment One UAS configuration, originally planned for 2013, will likely be delayed several years beyond FY14.”

Jan 22/14: EW. General Atomics and Northrop Grumman conduct the 2nd USMC demonstration of MQ-9s as electronic warfare platforms (q.v. Aug 13/13), using NGC’s Pandora low-power, wideband electronic warfare pod. They tested Pandora’s compatibility with the Reaper’s avionics and command and control architecture, including control of the Pandora pod’s operations, and tested the entire system’s integration into a Marine Command and Control (C2) network.

A Cyber/Electronic Warfare Coordination Cell (CEWCC) located at MCAS Yuma ran the pod and UAV, which supported a large aircraft strike package that included EA-6B Prowler jamming aircraft. General Atomics sees this as an important way to broaden the Reaper’s usefulness, in order to keep it from budget cuts (q.v. Jan 2/14). Sources: GA-ASI, “GA-ASI and Northrop Grumman Showcase Additional Unmanned Electronic Attack Capabilities in Second USMC Exercise”.

Jan 15/14: UAV SAR. General Atomics touts the use of its MQ-1 and MQ-9 UAVs in search and rescue scenarios, which will become much easier once civil airspace rules are changed to provide clear requirements for UAVs.

MQ-9 UAVs were used in New Mexico to find missing kayyakers in April 2012, and MQ-1s and MQ-9s were both used in October 2013 to find a missing German mountain biker who was stranded and injured in the Lincoln National Forest. Interestingly, their main role was to search less-likely areas, ensuring that they were covered while allowing humans to search the most likely areas.

The Italian jobs were a bit different, because they were conducted under Operation Mare Nostrum (“our ocean,” also colloquial Roman for the Mediterranean), which aims to find and rescue migrants who are trying to cross the sea in makeshift boats from North Africa. They use radar more extensively, and the Italian MQ-9s’ AN/APY-8 Lynx Block 30 multi-mode radars will soon add software to give them a new Maritime Wide Area Search (MWAS) mode. Sources: GA-ASI, “Predator-Series Aircraft Pivotal to Search and Rescue Missions”.

Jan 2/14: Budgets. Military.com quotes Pentagon director of unmanned warfare and ISR Dyke Weatherington, who says of the new UAV Roadmap that the 24% reduction in UAV spending of from 2012-2013, and 30% cut from 2013-2014, is a trend that will continue. The shift to the Pacific is likely to hurt UAVs below the top end, but:

“This roadmap is two years since the last one. We knew budgets would be declining. I don’t think two years ago we understood how significant the down slope was going to be so this road map much more clearly addresses the fiscal challenges…. We can generally say that from 2014 to 2015 the budget… will be reduced”…. there was about a 24-percent reduction from 2012 to 2013 and a 30-percent reduction from 2013 to 2014…. the Pentagon’s shift to the Pacific and overall Defense Strategy articulates a need to be prepared for more technologically advanced potential adversaries…. “EW is one of those areas where we are going to see opportunities for unmanned systems, likely in tandem with manned systems…”

In this environment, the program to add MALD-J loitering jamming decoys is promising for the MQ-9, but further budget cuts are not. Sources: DoD Buzz, “Pentagon Plans for Cuts to Drone Budgets”.

Jan 1/14: France. Defense World reports that French MQ-9s arrived “in the Sahel Region” on this day, for operations over Mali. Defense World, “France Receive First MQ-9 Reaper Drone”.

Dec 31/13: UK Support. A sole-source, unfinalized $31.9 million cost-plus-fixed-fee and firm-fixed-price option for Phase 1 & 2 contractor logistics support: urgent repairs and services, logistics support, field service representative support, contractor inventory control point and spares management, depot repair, flight operations support and field maintenance.

Work will be performed in Poway, CA, and is expected to be complete by March 31/15. The USAF acts as Britain’s agent (FA8620-10-G-3038, 0080, 09).

Dec 24/13: Support. A $362.2 million cost-plus-fixed-fee sole-source contract for MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper contractor support, including program management, logistics support, configuration management, technical manual and software maintenance, contractor field service representative support, inventory control point management, flight operations support, depot repair, and depot field maintenance.

$90 million in USAF O&M funds are committed immediately. Work will be performed at Poway, CA, and is expected to be complete by Dec 31/14. The USAF Life Cycle Management Center/WIKBA at Robins AFB, GA manages the contract (FA8528-14-C-0001).

Dec 19/13: France. The DGA procurement agency receives its 1st Reaper UAV, which is being readied for deployment to Mali along with a 2nd UAV, associated ground systems, etc. The DGA praises the USA’s help in getting personnel trained, helping with communications planning, etc. A record of six months from order to delivery is impressive, and demands nothing less.

French delivery

Nov 21/13: Dutch OK. The Dutch MvD delivers a report to the legislature, announcing the results of their MALE UAV program study phase, which began in 2012. Their requirements included 24 hour endurance, and payload options that included the standard surveillance and targeting turret and SAR/GMTI ground scanning radar, plus a wide-area ground-scanning radar and a SIGINT/COMINT interception pod. Weapons aren’t part of their plan, but they did want an option to add them later, if necessary. The MvD intends to buy 4 Reapers for fielding on expeditionary operations by 2016, and achieve full operational capability from their base at Leeuwarden by 2017. The budget for this purchase is just EUR 100 – 250 million.

That budget could be a problem.

The brief to Parliament lists European airworthiness certification as a major budget risk. It is. The fact that Britain, France, and Italy will also be MQ-9 customers was an argument for a Dutch buy, because they create a pool of partners who can benefit from each other’s work. Cost pooling is an even bigger factor for eventual certification beyond restricted airspace, whose success will involve sense-and-avoid technologies, and certifications whose cost can’t be predicted. Past estimates have involved hundreds of millions of dollars.

The other source of significant risk to the program involves integration the wide-area ground scanning radar, and SIGINT/COMINT payloads. The scope of that effort will have to be assessed. It’s worth noting that payloads are subject to network effects: a larger customer list in Europe makes it easier or more attractive to add payloads, which then provide another reason for new customers to sign on. Sources: Dutch MvD, “Defensie kiest Reaper als onbemand vliegtuig” and “Kamerbrief voorstudie project MALE UAV”.

Nov 20/13: Euro MALE. Defence Ministers committed to the launch of 4 programs during the EU European Defence Agency’s Steering Board session, 1 of which centered around a 4-part program for UAVs. “Ministers tasked EDA to prepare the launch of a Category B project” to develop a Future European MALE platform, to be introduced from 2020 – 2025. Other documents, noting the obvious potential for ridicule since Future European MALE = FEMALE, refer to it as “MALE 2020” – a timeline that would be imperative for industrial and competitive reasons. EDA hasn’t launched the project yet. Once it does, can Europe’s traditionally fractious program negotiations and fragmented execution hit a 2020 target date?

In parallel, a coalition of countries also plan to create an operator community of UAV users, so they can share experiences and improve the foundation for future cooperation. Germany, France, Spain, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland have all joined.

Other areas of cooperation will include streamlining UAV certification in European airspace, now that its costs and uncertainties have already killed Germany’s major Eurohawk UAV program. In a related move, Austria, Belgium, Britain, the Czech Republic, Germany, France and Spain signed a joint investment program around technologies required for UAV use in civil airspace. Sources: EDA, “Defence Ministers Commit to Capability Programmes” | Les Echos, “Drones : des pays europeens s’engagent a collaborer”.

Nov 14/13: Germany. Chancellor Merkel’s narrow victory has an important military consequence. A draft version of the coalition agreement between Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats reportedly says that:

“We categorically reject illegal killings by drones. Germany will support the use of unmanned weapons systems for the purposes of international disarmament and arms control…. Before acquiring a qualitatively new arms system, we will thoroughly investigate all associated civil and constitutional guidelines and ethical questions.”

Translation: Don’t expect a purchase of Reaper or Heron UAVs during the lifetime of this 4-year legislative session. Sources: The Local.de, “Germany halts purchase of armed drones” | See also the left-wing Truthout, “How Europeans Are Opposing Drone and Robot Warfare: An Overview of the Anti-Drone Movement in Europe”.

Nov 9/13: Support. The USAF Sustainment Center and General Atomics reach an enterprise-level, public-private partnership agreement which allows the 2 organizations to partner in the maintenance of MQ-1B/C and MQ-9 unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).
Work can be performed at AFSC logistics complexes in Georgia, Oklahoma and Utah:

“The WR-ALC is expected to begin work on UAS batteries in 2014 and interim modem assemblies in 2015. The battery workload is estimated to bring in 5,000 repair hours and grow to 9,600 repair hours by 2016. The modem workload is estimated to bring in 2,600 repair hours in 2015, growing to 4,500 in 2016. By the end of fiscal 2016, Warner-Robins will have more than 15,000 repair hours from the Predator/Reaper/Gray Eagle workload…”

It’s the 1st center-wide UAS partnership agreement implemented since the stand-up of the Air Force Sustainment Center in June 2012. Sources: Pentagon DVIDS, “Increased unmanned aircraft workload on the horizon thanks to new partnership”.

Nov 1/13: France. A maximum $27.6 million unfinalized delivery order for Phase I of France’s MQ-9 UAS Contractor Logistics Support program. Work will be performed in Poway, CA, and run until Oct 31/14.

This sole-source acquisition is handled by USAF Life Cycle Management Center/WIIK, Medium Altitude Unmanned Aircraft Systems at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH, acting as France’s agent (FA8620-10-G-3038, #0113).

FY 2013

France commits to buying 2, considers up to 16. Competitions in Canada, Netherlands, possibly Poland. FAA tests for civil airspace, and a European effort too; Deliveries stalled by fuel tank problem; JDAMs still a problem; MQ-9 Increment II in limbo; CAE will develop the sim/training system; OMX partnership in Canada as the future of local supplier efforts; Plans aside, what’s the real future of the Reaper force?

RAF MQ-9, Afghanistan

RAF Reaper Refuels,
Afghanistan

Oct 15/13: FY13 main order. GA-ASI receives a maximum $377.4 million, unfinalized delivery order for 24 MQ-9 Block 5 Reaper aircraft, shipping containers, initial spares and support equipment. It’s paid for with $305 million in FY 2013 procurement funds, with the rest coming from FY 2012 leftovers.

Though it is now technically a new fiscal year, the federal government shutdown was just the cherry on the cake for a messy FY 2013. This explains delayed orders, and their likewise late public announcement, like this one (FA8620-10-G-3038, #0050).

“USA buys 24

Sept 30/13: Reaper. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. in Poway, CA receives a not-to-exceed $49.8 million unfinalized cost-plus-fixed-fee contract action for France’s MQ-9 Reaper urgent request program of 2 UAVs. That seems about right.

Work will be performed in Poway, CA, and is expected to be complete by July 15/15. USAF Life Cycle Management Center/WIIK’s Medium Altitude Unmanned Aircraft Systems group, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH, acts as France’s FMS agent (FA8620-10-G-3038, DO 0112).

Just days earlier the first of 3 crews from the French air force had taken its initial training flight at Holloman AFB, NM. They want to be ready when 2 UAVs and 1 GCV are delivered at the end of the year. Sources: Pentagon | French Air Force, “Premier vol d’un equipage francais aux commandes d’un drone Reaper”.

France orders 2

Sept 25/13: Sensors. Raytheon Co. in McKinney, TX, has been awarded a $13.2 million delivery order, buying another 24 Multi-Spectral Targeting Systems High-Definition Infrared (MTS-B HD IR) turrets for the MQ-9 Reaper. All funds are committed immediately.

Work will be performed at McKinney, TX, and is expected to be complete by May 30/15. The USAF Life Cycle Management Center/WIIK’s Medium Altitude Unmanned Aircraft Systems group at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH manages the contracts (FA8620-11-G-4050, #0008, modification 12).

Sept 16/13: SOCOM. US SOCOM wants its MALET MQ-9s to have the same kind if easy transportability as its MALET MQ-1s. The Predators can be boxed, shipped in a C-17, and re-assembled in 4 hours. SOCOM wants its Reapers to be packable in under 8 hours, and assembled in less than 8 hours, but it’s going to take some work to get there.

As an aside, one of the most challenging aspects of a new MALET base is actually the ground station. That has to be present for launches and landings, since remote control from the USA is only suitable during the flight. Source: Military.com, “SOCOM Wants to Deploy MQ-9 Drones to Remote Areas”.

Aug 25/13: Help Wanted. The USAF has a pilot recruitment problem for drones, driven by lower recognition and a true perception that promotions are less likely in that service. Here’s the math:

The USA has 61 round-the-clock UAV Combat Air Patrols, and plans to increase that to 65 by 2015. That increase is now suspect. If it’s maintained, the Pentagon’s April 2012 “Report to Congress on Future Unmanned Aircraft Systems Training, Operations, and Sustainability” says the USAF will require, at minimum, 579 more MQ-1/9 UAV pilots from December 2011 – 2015. In 2012, the 40 USAF training slots attracted just 12 volunteers, and training attrition rates are 3x higher than they are for regular pilots. Unlike the USAF’s manned aircraft training slots, only 33 RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) training slots were filled (around 82%), triggered in part by the correct perception that those who succeed will have less career success. Based on present rates, 13% fewer RPA pilots have become majors, compared to their peers.

The US Army has an easier time of things with their MQ-1C fleet, because they tap enlisted and non-commissioned soldiers: 15W Operator and 15E Repairer are enlisted soldiers positions, and 150U technician positions involve a warrant officer. Sources: Stars & Stripes, “Unmanned now undermanned: Air Force struggles to fill pilot slots for drones” | See Additional Readings section for full Pentagon report.

Aug 16/13: Block 5 Testing. An $11.4 million firm-fixed-price contract to buy initial MQ-9 Block 5 spares and support equipment, to support 2 Block 5 UAVs. Technically, it’s an engineering change proposal (ECP) to calendar year 2011 spares and support equipment buys. All funds are committed immediately.

Work will be performed at Poway, CA, and is expected to be complete by March 28/16. USAF Lifecycle Management Center/WIIK, Medium Altitude Unmanned Aircraft Systems at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH manages the contract (FA8620-10-G-3038, DO 0001-01).

Aug 13/13: EW. General Atomics touts a successful April 12/13 successful demonstration of the MQ-9 as an electronic warfare platform, during the USMC’s Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) course at MCAS Yuma. A company-owned Predator B equipped with a Digital Receiver/Exciter pod and controlled by a GA-ASI Ground Control Station (GCS) was among over 20 aircraft participating. The Northrop Grumman pod “proved to be effective and seamlessly integrated with the Predator B avionics, command and control architecture.”

That’s a minimum baseline. Future demonstrations will work with other unmanned aircraft systems and USMC EA-6B Prowler EW aircraft at places like NAWS China Lake, directing the MQ-9’s EW payload and other assets from the Cyber/Electronic Warfare Coordination Cell (C/EWCC) located at MCAS Yuma. Work to integrate the jet-powered MALD-J jamming missile onto the MQ-9 will be another area of future focus, giving the UAV a range of EW capabilities ranging from jamming remote land mine detonators along convoy routes, to supporting attacks on enemy air defense systems. Source: General Atomics Aug 13/12 release.

Aug 12/13: A maximum $26.2 million, unfinalized sole-source contract for the MQ-9’s Extended Range Phase 2 project, which involves adding longer 88′ wingspan wings that carry internal fuel (q.v. March 12/13). About $7 million is committed immediately from a range of budgets, including FY 2012 R&D, procurement, and repair funds, and FY 2013 R&D funds.

Work will be performed at Poway, CA, and is expected to be complete by Aug 12/15. The USAF Life Cycle Management Center/WIIK, Medium Altitude Unmanned Aircraft Systems at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH manages the contract (FA8620-10-G-3038, DO 0106).

June 27/13: France wants more? The US DSCA notifies Congress [PDF] of a possible Foreign Military Sale to France for 16 unarmed MQ-9s and the necessary equipment and support, for a potential $1.5B total. Such a commitment would further damage the prospects for a future European UAV, but this is a possible sale at this stage, not a contract yet. This will surely get Dassault and EADS howling.

Le Figaro (a newspaper incidentally owned by Dassault) explains [in French] that the size of the request is just a reflection of the FMS process, but that the maximum quantity France would buy is 12 UAVs – in line with the latest whitepaper – for a maximum of 670 million euros (about $875M). But this gives France the option to meet more than its urgent operational requirement. If not directly off-the-shelf as some amount of “francisation” would be expected, at least from a supplier with an already well-established program.

The package would include 48 Honeywell engines (2 spare engines for each installed one), 8 ground control stations, 40 ground data terminals, 24 satellite earth terminal substations, 40 ARC-210 radio systems, and 48 IFF systems. Again, these quantities are very unlikely to happen.

DSCA: France request

June 26/13: Civil certification. In the wake of Germany’s Euro Hawk cancellation (q.v. May 14/13 entry), General Atomics makes an ambitious commitment to civil certification. This theme was also touched on in the Dutch MoU with Fokker (q.v. June 19/13 entry), and General Atomics has a signed a similar agreement with its German partner RUAG to pursue an:

“Independent Research and Development (IRAD) effort to develop a variant of its Predator B RPA that is fully compliant with the airworthiness requirements of the U.S. Air Force and anticipated NATO foreign customers, as well as offers enhanced capabilities for integration into domestic and international airspace. It is envisioned that the system solution will be a multi-nation, certifiable, exportable configuration built upon the company’s Block 5 Predator B aircraft capabilities and Advanced Cockpit Ground Control Station (GCS) layout.”

Which is all well and good. General Atomics’ team can probably develop the technical means, and Europe’s government are in fact working toward a framework for including UAVs in civil airspace. The problem is that the framework does not exist yet, and getting the bureaucrats to certify something totally new is estimated to cost EUR 500 – 600 million. That sum has to be paid by a customer government or governments, who probably don’t have it lying around in their budgets. If they do put the funds together as some kind of multinational consortium, local projects like the proposed EuroMALE are more likely to get that investment, because the certification becomes a big barrier to entry for foreign firms. Which means more jobs at home. General Atomics.

June 19/13: Netherlands. At the 50th Paris Air Show, General Atomics and Fokker Technologies announce a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to bid the MQ-9 as a solution for Dutch UAV requirements. Fokker has a very strong position in Dutch aerospace, and should be able to improve the Reaper’s chances.

In the MoU, Fokker commits to help adapt the UAV to Dutch national standards; offer guidance and support for Dutch airworthiness certification requirements; provide design, manufacturing, and support for the Electrical Wiring Interconnection system; offer engineering support related to landing and arresting gears; and support the UAV after delivery. GA-ASI.

June 18/13: Sub-contractors. For the past 2 years, General Atomics and Canada’s CAE have been teamed for Canada’s JUSTAS high-end UAV program, offering MQ-9/Predator B and/or Predator C Avenger UAVs. CAE is also a top-tier global simulation and training firm, however, and so GA-ASI is partnering with them to develop the global Mission Training System for the unarmed Predator XP, MQ-9 Reaper, and jet-powered Predator C Avenger.

As a bonus, sales and support of future training systems in Canada and abroad would count toward Canada’s required requirement for 100% industrial offsets against the purchase contract’s value. GA-ASI.

May 31/13: MQ-9. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian writes an article for Les Echos, stating his commitment to buy 2 MQ-9 Reaper UAVs from the USA, for delivery before the end of 2013. After so much procrastination, with only 2 Harfang drones operational, and with pressing commitments in Mali and elsewhere, he says that France must take the immediately available choice. Defense Aerospace suggests that the French Air Force finally got their way, after stalling other options.

The Americans’ reluctance to allow even key NATO allies like Italy to arm their drones suggests that French MQ-9s will also be unarmed, which Le Drian explicitly confirmed in an interview with Europe 1. France’s reputation for pervasive industrial espionage, even during combat operations, may also get in the way of advanced sensor exports, leaving their Reapers with 3,000 pounds of ordnance capacity that doesn’t get used. The other unresolved issue involves long-range control. If France wants to operate the Reapers via the preferred satellite link method, they’ll need to either spend the time and money to build their own control facility, make arrangements to share Britain’s newly-built RAFB Waddington facility, or co-locate with the USAF at Creech AFB, NV.

Ultimately, Le Drian argues for a European partnership that will share expertise and develop a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV like the Reaper. The Italians must be happy to hear that, and Le Drian seems to be referring to their discussions when he says “Cette ambition est d’ores et deja en chantier” (loose trans. “we’re already working on it”). The question in Europe is always whether talk will lead to action, so we’ll wait until we see a contract. Les Echos | Defense-Aerospace | Europe 1

.

France will buy 2 MQ-9 Reapers, and pursue a European MALE UAV project

May 14/13: Germany. Germany has decided to end the RQ-4 Euro Hawk project. Not only would it cost hundreds of millions to attempt EASA certification, but reports indicate that German authorities aren’t confident that they would receive certification at the end of the process. Rather than pay another EUR 600 – 700 million for additional UAVs and equipment, and an equivalent amount to attempt EASA certification, Germany will attempt to find another path.

This is bad news for General Atomics’ hopes of selling Germany MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. Reapers also lack anti-collision electronics, and would face many of the same certification problems. Read “RQ-4 Euro Hawk UAV: Death by Certification” for full coverage.

May 9/13: Italy. Foolish American intransigence may be about to create a Reaper competitor.

Aviation Week interviews Italy’s national armaments director Gen. Claudio Debertolis, who reveals that Italy asked to arm its MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs 2 years ago. The USA has refused to cooperate, halting Italian efforts, while allowing the British to arm their Reaper UAVs. Italy is responsible for wide swathes of territory in Afghanistan, and was the point country for NATO’s campaign against Libya in 2011.

Arming their UAVs is a high priority, and Debertolis confirms that Italy is in talks with potential European partners to move forward with a covert “Super MALE” weaponized UAV program. If they don’t develop a new UAV from scratch, the existing nEUROn program could fill this niche with a full stealth UCAV, and BAE/Dassault’s Mantis/ Telemos is a natural competitor to the Reaper. A 3rd option would be to just buy Heron UAVs from Israel, which that country has reportedly armed. France’s Harfang is a Heron derivative, and Germany is already operating them as rent-a-drones, so an armed Heron and conversion kit could offer a quick solution for all concerned.

The question for any of these options, and even for going ahead and converting existing MQ-1/9 UAVs with American permission, revolved around funding. America may have delayed Italy for so long that it doesn’t have the budget to do anything, even convert its existing UAVs. Aviation Week.

May 3/13: Brimstone for Reapers? With JAGM fielding still some way off, if ever, the USAF’s 645th Aeronautical Systems Group rapid acquisition office is being prodded by the UK to add MBDA’s competing dual laser/ MW radar guided Brimstone missile to the MQ-9’s arsenal. It’s real attraction is a ‘man in the loop’ feature that lets the firing aircraft abort an attack after launch, or correct a missile that locks on the wrong target. In Libya, those characteristics reportedly made it one of the few weapons NATO commanders could use to hit enemy armored vehicles in urban areas.

Brimstone already serves on RAF Tornado GR4 strike jets, and was an option for Britain’s Harrier GR9s before the entire fleet was sold to the US Marines. With Britain’s MQ-9s deployed, they’ve reportedly asked for tests using USAF MQ-9s, and also hope to interest American armed services in the weapon. Defense News | Defense Update.

April 23/13: Canada. General Atomics announces a 2-year agreement with OMX, who has developed the largest, amalgamated structured database of suppliers in the Canadian defence, aerospace, and security industries. Their searchable database has gathered and collected almost 50,000 companies “from existing information available on the Internet by a series of proprietary algorithms,” and has been live since December 2012. Why is this a great deal for OMX? Because:

“Canadian companies interested in becoming suppliers to GA-ASI are encouraged to claim their complimentary company profiles on www.theomx.com and update their information, including Canadian Content Value (CCV) percentages per product.”

It’s a different approach to finding local suppliers, but one that we expect to quickly become the norm around the world.

April 11/13: Support. General Atomics AIS in Poway, CA receives a sole-source $18.3 million firm-fixed-price contract for MQ-1/MQ-9 organic depot activation at Hill FB, UT; Warner-Robins AFB, GA; and Tinker AFB, OK.

Work is expected to be complete by April 4/15. The contract uses FY 2011 monies. USAF Life Cycle Management Command /WIIK at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH manages the contract (FA8620-10-G-3038, 0044).

April 10/13: FY 2014 Budget. The President releases a proposed budget at last, the latest in modern memory. The Senate and House were already working on budgets in his absence, but the Pentagon’s submission is actually important to proceedings going forward. See ongoing DID coverage.

With respect to the MQ-9, the FY 2014 budget cuts 12 Reaper systems. It will buy just 12 MQ-9 Block 5s this year, then pursue the same schedule as the FY 2013 plan. That’s the official line, anyway. FY 2018 adds another 24 Reapers as it moves the planning horizon forward a year, with 65 systems left in the planned program to bring the total to 401.

Delivery of the last 3 FY 2010 and the first 26 FY 2011 UAVs is delayed due to a General Atomics fuel tank manufacturing issue. The Government isn’t accepting aircraft until the manufacturing issue is corrected, but a solution was approved. Correction of tech data, spares and support equipment will be complete in May 2013.

April 2/13: What now? Defense News aptly summarizes the key question facing the USA’s MQ-9 plans:

“On the one hand, the work in Mali shows that the signature weapon of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is outlasting that conflict. On the other, the detachment is a tiny fraction of the Predator/Reaper fleet – and just where are the rest of them going to go?”

With flights below 60,000 feet heavily restricted within the USA, there aren’t that many options stateside, and most of the MQ-9 fleet’s $8,000 per flight hour operations are funded by wartime OCO appropriations. AFRICOM may have the best combination of circumstances abroad, but it can’t absorb all of them, and the $6,000 per flight hour manned MC-12s are a natural competitor.

March 28/13: GAO Report. The US GAO tables its “Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs“. Which is actually a review for 2012, plus time to compile and publish.

The MQ-9 Block 1 Reaper is in production, and the USAF has bought 117, or roughly 30% of their envisioned requirements. Block 5 production decision was delayed 2 years to July 2013, in part due to concerns about software delays, and integration and testing backlogs. Despite the extra time to mature key technologies, the program is currently incorporating several Urgent Operational Requirements from the front lines, including the Advanced Signals Intelligence Payload (ASIP).

Block 5 operational testing is currently planned for November 2013, and the program will be reducing or deferring 12 required block 5 capabilities related to aircraft endurance, radar performance, and reliability, and other areas.

Meanwhile, the USAF is currently re-evaluating its requirements and strategy for managing future Reaper upgrades – which puts the increment II program (GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb integration, Automatic take-off and landing, Deicing, and National airspace certification) in an unfunded limbo.

March 4/13: Reaper-ER plans. Gannett’s Air Force Times reports that the USAF wants to go ahead with the full suite of MQ-9 Reaper ER refits (vid. April 18/12 entry) to extend the UAV’s range and endurance, even in the middle of budget cuts. The USAF wouldn’t confirm FY 2014 budget plans, but GA-ASI director for strategic development Chris Pehrson has told Defense News that “They’ve approved it; it’s a matter of details now.” The report adds that:

“The ER model could allow incursions into Pakistan despite the loss of the Afghan bases that have been home to many unmanned launches in the past decade…. The standard Reaper is configured for 30 hours for the ISR model, and roughly 23 hours if armed with Hellfire missiles. General Atomics believes the ER model would up those to 42 hours for ISR and 35 hours with the Hellfire.”

Some of the ER’s modifications, like winglets on the wingtips and upgraded landing gear, are already slated for fielding in the MQ-9 Block 5. What the ER model adds is upturned instead of parabolic winglets (based on graphics shown to date), and longer wings (+22 feet wingspan, to 88 feet) with 2 “wet” hardpoints that can take fuel tanks. Gannett’s Air Force Times.

Reaper-ER

Jan 17/13: DOT&E Testing Report. The Pentagon releases the FY 2012 Annual Report from its Office of the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E). Despite “incremental progress,” the MQ-9 remains in limbo for GBU-38 500-pound JDAM integration, and hasn’t resolved the fuzing and weapons envelope discrepancies identified in 2010.

The Air Force intends to fulfill the MQ-9 Increment One CPD requirements with a final UAS configuration consisting of the Block 5 RPA, Block 30 GCS, and OFP 904.6. The UAV’s core OFP flight software has been a development issue, and DOT&E expects further delays, along with added risks because cyber-vulnerabilities haven’t been heavily tested. AFOTEC hopes to conduct formal operational testing of the final MQ-9 Increment One UAS in 2014.

Dec 21/12: Support. A $337.1 million firm-fixed-price, cost-plus-fixed-fee and time and material contract to procure logistics services for the USAF’s MQ-1 and MQ-9 Predator/Reaper fleets. Work will be performed in Poway, CA, and is expected to be complete by Dec 31/13. The AFLCMC/WIKBA at Robins AFB, GA manages this contract (FA8528-13-C-0002).

Beyond the original manufacturer GA-ASI, Battlespace Flight Services LLC is also a major support provider for Predator family fleets. Their most recent award was a $950 million contract issued to cover MQ-1/9 fleet support from January 2013 – March 2014.

Dec 20/12: UK. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. in Poway, CA, is being awarded a $42.9 million cost-plus-fixed-fee and firm-fixed-price contract for Phase 1 and 2 contractor logistics support to the British MQ-9 fleet.

Work will be performed at Poway, CA; Creech AFB, NV; Waddington, United Kingdom; and Afghanistan. Work is expected to be complete by March 31/15 (FA8620-10-G-3038, 0080).

Dec 19/12: France. DGA chief Laurent Collet-Billon confirms to reporters that France is discussing the option of buying MQ-9s through the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, modifying them to carry European sensors and weapons. Collet-Billon believes that this proposition could interest existing operators in Britain and Italy, as well as potential future operators in Germany and Poland.

IAI’s Heron TP also remains in the running. Aviation Week.

Nov 30/12: Support. A $12.6 million option for the MQ-9 Reaper’s FY 2010/2011 retrofits. Work will be performed in Poway, CA, and is expected to be complete by Sept 30/15 (FA8620-10-G-3038, DO 001302).

Nov 30/12: NASA upgrade. GA-ASI announces an agreement with NASA’s Dryden Flight Center to upgrade their MQ-9 “Ikhana” UAV with new satellite link capabilities. It’s part of a no-cost Space Act Agreement signed in September 2012, and will let the UAV operate in places like the Arctic, where communications can be spotty. NASA Dryden center director David McBride:

“The system improvements enabled by this agreement expand the utility of the Ikhana MQ-9 for NASA science and the development of technology required for unmanned air systems to fly in the national airspace. Both are key national priorities that benefit from this government/industry cooperative effort.”

See: NASA | GA-ASI.

Nov 5/12: + 10 A $125.5 million contract for 10 MQ-9 “modified Block 1” (Block 5) UAVs. Work will be performed in Poway, CA, and is expected to be complete by Nov 28/14 (FA8620-10-G-3038, DO 0052).

USA buys 10 Block 5s

Oct 25/12: FAA. GA?ASI announces that they’ve successfully demonstrated BAE’s reduced-size AN/DPX-7 Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B)-based system, using a US Customs and Border Protection MQ-9 Guardian (maritime Predator B) flying off of the Florida coast. The test follows GA-ASI’s successful 2011 test of a prototype airborne X-band “Due Regard” AESA Radar aboard a manned aircraft, and is another step toward civil airspace certification.

The FAA has mandated that all aircraft flying above 10,000 feet or around major U.S. airports must be ADS-B equipped by 2020. ADS-B is a GPS-based surveillance system, and DPX-7 combines military IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) with civilian ADS-B compatibility. The goal of these tests, and of the broader program, is to have a UAV that knows when other aircraft are approaching, and can likewise inform them of its own presence and location. The Guardian UAV did that with ADS-B in the tests, but a Due Regard radar would give it a secondary backup that could also find aircraft whose ADS-B was absent or malfunctioning.

Oct 22/12: UK. The Guardian reports that RAF XIII Squadron being stood up on Oct 26/12 will operate its 5 Reapers from a new control facility at RAFB Waddington. They’ll have 3 control terminals at Waddington, and all 5 UAVs will deploy to Afghanistan. The 5 Reapers already in service there will continue operation from the USAF’s Creech AFB, NV, but Britain wants to consolidate all of its MQ-9 operations to Waddington later on.

XIII Squadron’s deployment will place all 10 British Reapers in Afghanistan. The question is how many of them, if any, will remain there after 2014, when all NATO combat operations are due to end.

FY 2012

GA-ASI develops Reaper ER, adds auto-takeoff and landing.

Armed MQ-9

Here’s looking
at you, kid…
(click to view full)

Sept 17/12: Auto-land. GA-ASI announces that the MQ-9 Reaper has successfully completed 106 full-stop Automatic Takeoff and Landing Capability (ATLC) landings, with no issues.

The core ATLC system comes from the US Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle, and the move represents a departure for the USAF. The approach to date has been to have pilots fly the Reaper, so of course the tradition is to let them fly all aspects. The problem is, the Army found that they had far fewer accidents with automated landings, than the USAF was having with pilots at the controls. The Army also appreciated the ability to use lower-ranking individuals as UAV controllers. Reapers aren’t cheap, and lowering accident rates took priority. So here we are.

The tests took place at the company’s Gray Butte Flight Operations Facility in Palmdale, CA. The next steps will include envelope expansion for takeoffs and landings at higher wind limits and greater maximum gross weights, differential GPS (dGPS) enhancements, and terrain avoidance with adjustable glideslope. GA-ASI.

Sept 13/12: Support. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. in Poway, CA receives a $297 million cost plus fixed price, firm-fixed-price and time and materials contract for MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper contractor logistics support. Work will be performed in Poway, CA, and is expected to be complete by Dec 31/12. The ASC/WIIK at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH manages the contract.

The mystery revolves around who it’s for. The original Sept 10/12 release mistakenly said that the contract involved foreign military sales to Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa. The Sept 13/12 “correction” said it involved foreign military sales to United Kingdom.

GA-ASI, who should know, says that neither of those descriptions is accurate. It finalizes a December 2011 contract to support the USAF and British RAF’s deployed MQ-1 and MQ-9 units, and includes field support representatives at remote sites. General Atomics is already 9 months into fulfilling it, and this is the revised dollar amount (FA8620-10-G-3038, 002403).

Sept 5/12: MQ-9 block 5. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. announces a successful 1st flight of the MQ-9 Reaper Block 1-plus. With the completion of development, testing, and expected Milestone C decision this fall, the MQ-9 Block 1-plus configuration will be designated “MQ-9 Block 5.”

Block 5 flies

Aug 28/12: GCS. A $46.5 million firm-fixed-price contract modification for ground control stations. Work is to be completed by Feb 28/14 (FA8620-10-G-3038, #0031).

Aug 20/12: Upgrades. An $87.3 million combination firm-fixed-price, cost-plus fixed-fee contract for retrofit kits and their installation on up to 80 FY 2010/2011 MQ-9 Block 1 aircraft, to be completed by August 2016 (FA8620-10-G-3038, #0013).

When asked, GA-ASI clarified that these kits have 2 main components. One involves installing new trailing arm heavyweight landing gear (TA-MLG), to increase weight capacity. The other big change involves upgrading the weapons kit from BRU-15 [PDF] bomb release units to ITT Exelis’ BRU-71/A [PDF]. These new pneumatic bomb racks are meant to be safer, easier to maintain, and more capable.

Note that this retrofit does not update these Reapers to the future Block 5 standard, which will also encompass other upgrades such as redesigned avionics.

July 10/12: Sensors. Raytheon announces a $191 million contract to provide 149 MTS-B multispectral surveillance and targeting turrets for the USAF’s MQ-9 Reaper. Deliveries are scheduled to begin in January 2013, and the contract also includes support equipment and spares.

The MTS-B is used aboard MQ-9s operated by the USAF, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Britain, and Italy, and has been picked for the U.S. Navy’s MQ-4C Triton/ BAMS Global Hawk UAV variant.

June 20/12: POGO, stuck. James Hasik undertakes a thorough analysis of MQ-9 costs, and comparables for the USA’s F-16 fleet, as a riposte to a paper by Winslow Wheeler of the Project On Government Oversight (POGO, vid. March 1/12). To put it charitably, he doesn’t think very much of Wheeler’s analysis. Hasik’s argument and analysis are worth reading in full, but the core sums to this:

“Actually, 29.5 hours is 17 percent of a week… a tad below the objective of 21 percent, and… With proceed time, it could be more like 12/7 coverage [for a 4-UAV set]. But honestly, I don’t know of any other military aircraft that spends 17 percent of its life airborne… For a 7,300-hour per year four-ship CAP, the estimated costs for MQ-9s are $10.5 million in manpower, $17.2 million in variable flying expenses, and $ 9.2 million in depreciation, for a total of $36.9 million. The estimated costs for F-16Cs are $14.5 million in manpower, $37.3 million in variable flying expenses, and $34.1 million in depreciation, for a total of $85.9 million… [even] operating and dumping four old F-16Cs [would cost] ($51.8 million). In peacetime… F-16 aircrews would still need to get in their 200+ hours to maintain proficiency. How much flying is required for Reaper aircrews to maintain the same? Possibly zero… [and] the per-hour cost of the MQ-9 is so much lower than that of the jets that it’s still clearly the better choice.

…In short, including these aircraft in the force structure is good idea simply to save unjustified wear-and-tear on the fighters, which might actually, someday, again be needed for the big war.”

May 29/12: Arming the Italians. There’s no formal DSCA announcement yet, but media reports indicate that the US government wants to approve Italy’s request to arm its MQ-9 fleet.

If that comes to pass, all 3 Reaper customers (the USAF, Britain, and Italy) will have armed their UAVs. The clear implication would also follow that any NATO member, or close allies like Australia, would be authorized to buy armed American UAVs. That has been a source of controversy in the past (vid. Dec 15/11), and until approval and work take place, this can’t be seen as a completely done deal just yet.

Italy’s military has responsibility for a wide area of northern Afghanistan, and arming its MQ-9s would certainly be helpful to them. So far, Italy appears to have bought 4 MQ-9s, out of their approved total of 6.

April 18/12: Reaper ER. General Atomics announces a pair of “extended range” MQ-9 versions, developed with its own funds. Step 1 is heavyweight landing gear, which increases maximum landing weight by 30%, and maximum gross takeoff weight to 11,700 pounds (+12%). Step 2 is a pair of “wet” hardpoints that can handle a pair of fuel tanks. With those enhancements, aerial endurance without other payloads rises from 27 hours – 37 hours. That endurance also translates into range, but endurance is usually the bigger issue for UAVs.

Step 3 could add a bigger change, replacing the Reaper’s 66 foot wingspan with new wings that have internal fuel tanks. The new wingspan becomes 88 feet, with winglets at the tips, and a UAV with this configuration would raise endurance without other payloads to 42 hours. Both sets of changes can be made as upgrades to existing drones. GA-ASI | AIN | WIRED Danger Room.

strong>March 2/12: +2. A $38.4 million firm-price-incentive-firm (FPIF) and firm-fixed-price (FFP) contract for 2 modified MQ-9 Block 1 UAVs (FPIF) and 2 Aircraft Containers (FFP). Work is expected to be complete in November 2013 (FA8620-10-G-3038, 0051).

USA buys 2

March 1/12: How many crashes? Winslow T. Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information asks how many Predators and Reapers are being lost to crashes. He has to extrapolate to great lengths because of less-than-transparent information sharing from the Pentagon and the Air Force. Wheeler himself doesn’t seem to factor in training and maintenance needs, except to say that he believes that MQ-9s may require more maintenance than advertised. That could be a sufficient explanation for the “excess” ordered drones all by itself, if the Pentagon’s goal is to maintain the required number of combat patrols.

As of February 2012, there are 87 MQ-9 aircraft in inventory according to the Air Force’s latest P-40 document. DID doesn’t have the precise number of deliveries to date, but this probably leaves room for a dozen or more missing aircraft, based on the 101 units ordered to the end of FY10, and delays between orders and deliveries that range between 6 – 24 months.

Though the Air Force doesn’t publicly report all its UAV crashes, Mr. Wheeler’s estimate that the Air Force has “anticipated” an attrition rate of up to 35% strikes us as quite the stretch.

Feb 13/12: FY13PB Bad News. the FY 2013 President Budget cuts the order rate per year from 48 to 24. This would go back to the rate executed in FY 2009 and FY 2010, leaving only FY11/12 at the full rate of 48 units per year. Gross weapon system cost for FY13 is at $553.5 million, down from $719.6 million planned for FY 2012. This, as well as a number of aircraft and system upgrades, should drive unit cost above $15 million. The total number of units by the end of FY 2017 would reach 317 aircraft. If Congress agrees with these quantities this will mean that the program peaked in FY 2011 slightly above $1.2 billion in combined procurement and RDT&E, with spending decreasing to about $650-$800 million per year starting in the coming fiscal year. See spreadsheet above.

While procurement takes a hit, total RDT&E over the next 5 years increased by about $200 million vs. the set of numbers communicated by the Air Force in the FY12PB. Finally the budget for modifications is expected to reach a peak of $238.4 million in FY 2013, up from $149.7 million for FY 2012. Modifications would reach $1.15 billion for 2012-17 out of a total $2.5 billion over the life of the program.

Jan 12/12: GCS. The Register – which never has any love lost for Microsoft – reports that recent pictures show that GCS block 30 Predator-Reaper Ground Control Stations are partly switching over from Windows to Linux computer operating systems, after successful keylogger hacking attacks reported in October 2011.

In reality, using Linux in Block 30 was already in the pipeline months before said security incident (Air Force PDF). Work on the next-generation Block 50 continues.

Dec 15/11: Dis-armed. The Wall Street Journal reports that Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein [D-CA] is lobbying against selling armed UAVs to any other countries beyond Britain, even key allies. This news is bracketed by announcements that EADS is expanding its UAV cooperation agreements to include Italy’s Alenia, and that those agreement include the possible development of armed UCAV platforms. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter if Feinstein succeeds. The mere fact that she is trying, and that the Obama administration is seen to be vacillating on the issue, will cause other countries to step up their own independent efforts. Wall Street Journal [subscription] | Alenia | EADS.

Dec 8/11: +40 A $319.2 million firm-fixed-price contract for 40 MQ-9 Block 1 UAVs, and 40 aircraft containers. Work is expected to be complete in September 2013. This was a sole-source acquisition (FA8620-10-G-3038 0017).

USA buys 40

Dec 7/11: CIA Reapers? Flight International discusses Google Earth photos that appear to show an MQ-1 or MQ-9 being towed on a runway at Yucca Lake, NV, which is owned by the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Their report collates what is known from a variety of sources, but the core speculation is that Yucca Lake may be a CIA base, capable of holding 10-15 drones. The CIA is known to operate both MQ-1s and MQ-9s, alongside the RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone which recently ended up in Iran’s hands. An earlier Google Earth image, showing what appear to be a Pilatus PC-12 and Beechcraft King Air on the ramp, has also fueled speculation that Yucca Lake is used by Lockheed Martin.

Dec 2/11: Protests. DeWitt Town Justice David Gideon rules that 31 protesters are guilty on 2 charges of disorderly conduct, and sentences 4 to jail time, for blocking the main entrance to the New York Air National Guard’s Hancock Field on April 22/11. They were protesting the base’s MQ-9 Reaper drones, which the 174th Fighter Wing has been remotely flying over Afghanistan, from Syracuse, since late 2009. Syracuse Post-Standard.

Dec 1/11: Away from the FAA. The US Army confirms that the MQ-9 Reaper has begun training missions at Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield in Fort Drum, NY, which allows it to use that site’s restricted airspace without having to get FAA waivers. The cockpit sits at Syracuse’s Hancock International Airport, in order to make takeoffs and landings near-real time, after which the MQ-9 remains connected via satellite.

Nov 28/11: France. The French Senate adopts its Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s recommendation to re-route EUR 109 million in funding from France’s 2012 UAV budget, and remove French industrial policy as a decision factor. The move is explicitly designed to favor the MQ-9 Reaper as France’s interim drone, over the more expensive Heron TP picked by France’s DGA. The way France’s political system is structured, however, makes this a long-odds shot at changing the DGA’s mind. Read “Apres Harfang: France’s Next High-End UAVs” for full coverage.

FY 2011

US ramps up Block 1 orders, analyzes limitations; Air Force defers Milestone C decision for Block 5 RPA. Program continues to lack an approved Test and Evaluation Master Plan (TEMP). France loss might still be reverted.

Click for video

Sept 14/11: Un-American MQ-9. GA-ASI and SELEX Galileo complete initial testing of a new UAS open payload architecture for their Sovereign Payload Capability (SPC) Demonstration, using GA-ASI’s System Integration Lab (SIL). The broad goal is to be able to add 3rd party sensors and control software without the need to modify software on the MQ-9 or its ground controllers, while letting on-board systems access aircraft data links and communication buses, control certain aircraft power switching, and receive vehicle and sensor data feeds.

The narrower goal involves supporting SELEX Galileo’s sophisticated SeaSpray 7500E AESA maritime radar into the MQ-9, which fits with wider efforts to demonstrate the MQ-9/Predator B’s attractiveness as a maritime surveillance platform.

SPC is a privately-funded Independent Research and Development (IRAD) effort between GA-ASI and SELEX Galileo. GA-ASI is performing the software and hardware modifications, while SELEX Galileo is developing the airborne payload control software, and delivering the radar for integration. A live flight demonstration over the Pacific Ocean is expected in early December 2011. GA-ASI.

Oct 17/11: Italy +2. A $15 million firm-fixed-price contract for the Italian Air Force MQ-9 Reaper Program. This gets production going for 2 MQ-9 Reapers, 3 Lynx Block 30 radars, and 1 spare engine. ASC/WIIK, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, is the contracting activity (FA8620-10-G-3038, 0006).

In 2008, Italy’s original $330 million DSCA request was for 4 UAVs and 3 ground stations. A Nov 19/09 DSCA request looked to pay up to $63 million more, in order to raise the order limit to 6 equipped UAVs and 4 ground stations. This buy makes 4 UAVs, and 2 ground stations so far. General Atomics’ support contracts (about $30 million so far, vid. Nov 30/10, Aug 26/09) are likely to expand along with the fleet.

Italy buys 2

Oct 14/11: FAA training OK. The FAA has decided to allow MQ-9s from the Hancock Air National Guard to fly training missions in Fort Drum’s special use airspace at all times, rather than on a case-by-case basis. This has been required up until now, because UAVs lack basic “sense and avoid” safety measures, and so have very restricted flight certifications.

The next step is a plan that would allow the 174th Fighter Wing to fly its Reapers from Hancock, NY to Fort Drum, instead of being loaded onto trucks and driven. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand [D-NY] | Read Media | WSYR | YNN Central NY.

Oct 7/11: Virus! WIRED Danger Room reports that a “keylogger” virus has infected the USAF’s MQ-1A/B Predator and MQ-9 Reaper fleets. This is a surveillance virus that records keystrokes, and may periodically send the results elsewhere:

“The virus, first detected nearly two weeks ago by the military’s Host-Based Security System, has not prevented pilots at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada from flying their missions overseas. Nor have there been any confirmed incidents of classified information being lost or sent to an outside source. But the virus has resisted multiple efforts to remove it from Creech’s computers, network security specialists say… “We keep wiping it off, and it keeps coming back,” says a source familiar with the network infection, one of three that told Danger Room about the virus. “We think it’s benign. But we just don’t know.”

See also Las Vegas Review-Journal.

MQ-9, armed

MQ-9, armed
(click to view full)

Aug 19/11: R&D. An $11.6 million cost-plus-incentive and firm-fixed-price contract for development of the MQ-9’s aircraft structural improvement program master plan; a left set synthetic aperture radar; and a high definition integrated sensor control system (FA8620-05-G-3028, 0049-19).

General Atomics’ Lynx SAR ground radar, developed in conjunction with Sandia National Laboratories, is widely used on MQ-1A/B Predator and MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAVs, and operates aboard MQ-9s flown the Italian Air Force and US Customs & Border Patrol.

July 21/11: Loss in France. The French Defense Ministry enters into talks with Dassault Aviation to adapt IAI’s Heron TP for use by the French military, starting in 2014, to plug the gap before a “new generation” of drones becomes available in 2020. Reports cite General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper drones as the military’s preferred choice, but the high-value workshare for Dassault and Thales SA clinched the Heron TP as the Ministère de la Défense’s interim choice instead.

France eventually changes its mind, and buys MQ-9s. Read “Apres Harfang: France’s Next High-End UAV” for full coverage.

“Loss” in France

July 1/11: Wildfires. U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Office of Air and Marine has begun using its MQ-9 and the agency’s “Big Pipe” video service, to help agencies fighting Arizona’s wildfires. NASA’s Ikhana has also been used in a fire survey role, and USCBP appears to have formalized the capability.

The UAV, launched from National Air Security Operations Center-Sierra Vista, is using both its electro-optical and radar sensors, then sending the results down to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Department of Interior (DOI), and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). USCBP Big Pipe images can be viewed anywhere there is an internet connection, including smart-phones. Reviews from the field have been positive. GA-ASI.

May 25/11: Canada. General Atomics and CAE announce an exclusive teaming agreement to offer the MQ-9 as a contender for Canada’s JUSTAS UAV program. GA-ASI.

April 27/11: Germany. General Atomics signs a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with RUAG Aerospace Services GmbH. They plan to offer the MQ-9 as a successor to Germany’s SAATEG program, which is leasing IAI Herons and services from Rheinmetall to cover Germany’s Afghan deployment (vid. Oct 28/09 entry). GA-ASI.

March 31/11: UK. A General Atomics Aeronautical Systems UK Ltd (GA-UK) subsidiary is established with an office in London, managed by Dr. Jonny King. Britain has received 6 MQ-9s, and will grow that fleet to 10 as the December 7/10 orders arrive. GA-ASI.

March 21/11: +6. A $50.3 million firm-fixed-price contract modification for 6 production MQ-9 Reapers, and 2 MQ-9s that will become ground maintenance trainers. Work will be performed in Poway, CA (FA-8620-10-G-3038, 002801).

Feb 2/11: +24. A $148.3 million contract for 24 MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. At this time, the entire amount has been committed (FA8620-10-G-3038 0028).

USA buys 31

Feb 2/11: MQ-9 Issues. Defense news quotes Col. James Gear, director of the USAF’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft Task Force, on the future of its UAV fleet. Despite a big commitment to the MQ-1 Predator, the MQ-9 Reaper caused a major mid-stream shift in plans. Col. Gear cites some existing issues with the MQ-9, which could leave it open to a similar shift.

The Reaper does not fare well in icing conditions, and is also not considered survivable against anti-aircraft systems. The issue of jam and snoop-proof data links, and trace-back and verification of signal origins, has also been a live question during the MQ-1 and MQ-9’s tenure. The “MQ-X” that replaces it will have to do better on all 3 counts, and the USAF also wants it to be easily upgradeable via switch-out modules. The Colonel believes the resulting UAV will end up being common with the US Navy’s carrier-based UCLASS requirement, as the 2 services are cooperating closely. That could give Northrop Grumman’s funded X-47B N-UCAS an edge over Boeing’s privately developed X-45 Phantom Ray, but General Atomics will also be submitting its own Avenger/ Sea Avenger.

Having said all of that, the MQ-9 Reaper would be superior to jet-powered UAVS in an environment where airspace is secure and the USA needs lower-cost, long endurance UAVs that combine surveillance and hunter-killer capability. There, it doesn’t need higher-end capabilities, and can deliver the same or better results for less money.

Dec 7/10: Prime Minister David Cameron announces that Britain will “double” its current MQ-9 Reaper fleet, under a GBP 135 million contract. That would place the fleet at its full requested size of 10 UAVs. UK MoD | Flight International.

UK buys 5 more

Dec 1/10: Military support. About 75 airmen from the USAF 451st Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron assume responsibility for MQ-9 Reaper maintenance operations at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, replacing a civilian contract force. They become the first USAF servicemembers to maintain MQ-9s since they entered combat operations in Afghanistan. USAF.

Nov 30/10: Italy. An $18.1 million contract modification, covering contractor logistics support for the Italian Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper program, including all logistics necessary to support the Italian Air Force main operating base and possibly a forward operating base. At this time, $5.4 million has been committed (FA8620-10-G-3038).

Oct 5/10: Support. A $34.4 million contract modification which will provide organizational maintenance support for MQ-9 Reapers and related systems at Creech Air Force Base, NV; Holloman Air Force Base, NM; and deployed locations worldwide. ACC AMIC/PKC at Langley Air Force Base, VA issued this contract (FA4890-07-C-0009, PO 0041).

FY 2010

MQ-9 delivery

RAF MQ-9 to Afghanistan
(click to view full)

Sept 15/10: Support. A $51.5 million contract for Initial Spares, Deployment Readiness Packages, and Ground Support Equipment to support the FY 2008 MQ-9 Reaper buy. At this time, all funds have been committed (FA8620-05-G-3028; 0066).

Sept 10/10: UK. Britain has sent an extra MQ-9 Reaper UAV to Afghanistan:

“This latest addition to the Royal Air Force’s Reaper fleet will allow 39 Squadron to fly multiple Reaper aircraft at any one time over Afghanistan. A total of 36 hours of video surveillance can now be delivered in support of troops on the ground every day of the year, which marks an 80 per cent increase over the past 12 months. Reaper has been supporting ground forces in Afghanistan since October 2007 and has now flown over 13,000 hours in direct support of operations.”

Sept 9/10: +6. A $38.3 million contract modification which will buy 6 MQ-9 Reaper aircraft. Which is not the same thing as 6 Reaper systems (which would include all ancillaries), or even 6 fully-armed Reapers (sensors and weapons are separate contracts). At this time, the entire amount has been committed (FA8620-05-G-3028; 0050012).

Aug 25/10: Support. A $7.8 million contract modification for the MQ-9 System Development and Demonstration Increment I program. The contract includes a credit for stopped work, a cost overrun for on-going activities, additional scope for a high capacity starter/generator, and the AWM-103 for Hellfire development effort. The AN/AWM-103 is a release and control test set used for pre-flight operational checks of various missile and ordnance launch interfaces, and will also be used for the AIM-9X Sidewinder.

At this time, $3.6 million has been committed by the ASC/WIIK at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH (F33657-02-G-4035, 0023 36).

June 25/10: France. France’s future UAV options are coming into clearer focus as they prepare to release their new “DTIA” RFP. The MQ-9 is still seen as a contender, but it isn’t alone by any means. Read “Apres Harfang: France’s Next High-End UAV” for in-depth coverage.

June 24/10: New GCS bases. The USAF will create additional ground control bases for its MQ-1 and MQ-9 fleets. Whiteman Air Force Base, MO is expected to reach Initial Operational Capability by February 2011. Ellsworth AFB, SD will achieve IOC by May 2012. Each base will add about 280 people, but no UAVs. USAF.

June 15/10: +4. A $24 million contract for 4 more MQ-9 Reaper (2 production aircraft and 2 ground maintenance trainers). At this time, the entire amount has been committed (FA8620-05-G-3028).

A conversation with General Atomics confirms that these 4 MQ-9s are for the USAF, which is exercising a FY 2009 option for more UAVs.

USA buys 5

June 9/10: Italy. Defense News reports that Italy’s 2 ordered Reaper systems will be delivered in July 2010 to Puglia air base in southern Italy, and are expected to start serving in Afghanistan before year-end. The original delivery schedule for the February 2009 order was before 2009 year end, but that has slipped.

An Italian Air Force source told Defense News that 2 more Reapers will be delivered by the end of 2010. The Italian Air Force reportedly wants to have 2 UAVs (Predator or Reaper) ready to fly at all times in Afghanistan, or 1 permanently flying. Italy already operates a small set of MQ-1 Predator UAVs. See also Feb 5/09 ad Dec 19/09 entries.

June 4/10: Automatic? A $9 million contract which will provide “for MQ-9 auto take-off and landing capability modification to the system development and demonstration bridge effort.” US Army UAVs have tended to use automatic take off and landing, which allows them to use non-commissioned officers as UAV controllers. It has also led to lower crash rates, compared to USAF UAVs.

At this time, $1 million has been obligated by the 703th AESG/SYK at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH (FA8620-05-G-3028).

May 19/10: UK. The UK MoD announces that The RAF’s MQ-9 Reaper program has now exceeded 10,000 hours of armed overwatch in support of UK and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The Reapers are flown by 39 Squadron via satellite from a UK operations facility at Creech AFB, NV, USA. Its primary role is surveillance, but from May 2008 the system has been armed with Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs. In the last 12 months alone, 39 Squadron has more than doubled its operational flying output, and more RAF MQ-9s are expected to arrive in theater in 2010. UK MoD.

March 30/10: Euro-competitor? The UK’s Labour Party Minister of Defence Quentin Davies says that the U.K., France and Italy have commissioned a set of firms including Dassault Aviation SA to study a multinational project for an armed UAV with surveillance capabilities. The goal is “an improvement on [MQ-9] Reaper, the next generation,” and the report is due for completion in June 2010.

BAE’s Mantis UAV project is one possible basis for an effort of this type, and the UK MoD has confirmed that “Mantis will be one contender in the assessment phase [but] no firm commitments have been made.” Other possibilities might include widening the current French/ German/ Spanish Talarion UAV project, or merging the UK’s stealthy Taranis UCAV project into the similar nEUROn consortium, which already includes France and Italy. A great deal depends on the specifications laid out for the new UAV. BusinessWeek.

Feb 1/10: +2 test. A $12.8 million cost plus fixed fee term contract to provide 2 MQ-9 Reaper test aircraft. They will support immediate and future development tests needs on the Reaper Increment I program. All funds have been committed by the 703rd Aeronautical Systems Group at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH (FA8620-05-G-3028-005005).

December 2009: Hacked! Media reports reveal that MQ-1 Predator UAVs have had their surveillance footage intercepted, using an inexpensive satellite receiver and low-cost SkyGrabber software. The reason? No encryption between the UAV and its ground receivers. The Wall Street Journal adds that:

“The US government has known about the flaw since the US campaign in Bosnia in the 1990s, current and former officials said. But the Pentagon assumed local adversaries wouldn’t know how to exploit it, the officials said.”

Some reports added that retrofits are now underway to fix this problem, beginning with deployed UAVs. General Atomics confirmed to DID that the Reaper has used the same SATCOM setup as its Predators. See Wall St. Journal | Ars Technica | cnet | Defense Tech | John Robb’s Global Guerrillas | Flight International.

Hacked

Dec 7/09: US CBP. US Customs and Border patrol takes delivery of its first MQ-9 “Guardian” variant in Paldale, CA, as part of a joint program with the US Coast Guard to investigate UAVs for maritime patrol roles. Australia has already done similar work, as part of its Coastwatch program.

The Guardian has been modified from a standard MQ-9 with structural, avionics, and communications enhancements, as well as the addition of a Raytheon SeaVue Marine Search Radar, and an Electro-optical/Infrared (EO/IR) Sensor that is optimized for maritime operations. Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) is expected to begin in early 2010 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, and if all goes well, the UAV will be sent out on counter-narcotics operations beginning in spring 2010. General Atomics release.

These UAVs are bought by the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Defense. By 2014, US CBP has 11 MQ-9s, including 2 “Guardian” maritime patrol variants with the SeaVue radar.

US Customs & Border Patrol

Nov 19/09: The US DSCA announces [PDF] Italy’s official request for 2 more unarmed MQ-9 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), 1 Mobile Ground Control Station, plus maintenance support, engineering support, test equipment, ground support, operational flight test support, communications equipment, technical assistance, personnel training/equipment, spare and repair parts, and other related support. The estimated cost is up to $63 million. The contractors would be:

  • General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. San Diego, California (UAV)
  • Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems El Segundo, CA (surveillance/targeting turret)
  • General Atomics Lynx Systems San Diego, CA (SAR radar)

Italy has already ordered 2 MQ-9s and 2 ground stations (vid. Feb 5/09, Aug 26/09), and its original Aug 1/08 DSCA request was for 4 UAVs and 3 ground stations. This request would raise the order limit to 6 UAVs and 4 ground stations.

DSCA request: Italy (2)

Nov 2/09: Seychelles. Voice of America quotes U.S. Africa Command spokesman Vince Crawley, who says several MQ-9 Reapers will be based in the Seychelle Islands (just north of Madagascar) by late October or November 2009. The UAVs will be based at the international airport in the capital Mahe, and are there at the request of the Seychelles government. AFRICOM says they will not be armed, which makes the MQ-9 Reaper an odd choice versus the MQ-1 Predator.

The request came after Somali pirates began extending their operations more than 1,000 km away from Somali shores. Two Seychelles-flagged vessels have been hijacked in 2009, and several others attacked in waters near the Seychelles and the Comoros Islands. India also has close relations with the Seychelles, and sent a warship to the area in May 2009. Voice of America | Stars and Stripes | Crossed Crocodiles.

Oct 28/09: Germany. In contrast to Italy’s buy, Germany leases Israeli Heron UAVs for use in Afghanistan. At least one report suggests that negative experiences with Foreign Military Sales rules tipped Germany away from an MQ-9 Reaper, which was the target of an Aug 1/08 DSCA request. Time will tell if Germany’s procurement policies bear that out.

Germany leases Heron UAVs instead

Oct 14/09: Losing my connection. Esquire Magazine’s “We’ve Seen the Future, and It’s Unmanned” article includes an excerpt covering MQ-9 operations that may raise a few eyebrows:

“During “lost link” episodes, when communication with the air crew is broken, the plane circles on a preset course and waits for direction. “We have to find it. It’s like hide-and-seek,” Dowd said. The week Gersten took command at Creech, a power surge hit the base and he lost contact with several Predators and Reapers over Afghanistan and Iraq. His crews told him this was nothing to worry about, and in fifteen minutes all the planes were back online. Two weeks later, another power surge hit Creech and he lost contact with more Predators and Reapers. Within a half hour, all were found. But systems so technology-dependent will be vulnerable to exploitation, whether through hacking or physical interruption of data – shooting down a satellite, perhaps, along its round-the-world journey. And in increasingly wired war zones, everyone will be fighting for bandwidth.”

See also Sept 13/09 entry, re: the forced shoot-down of an MQ-9 over Afghanistan.

Oct 10/09: France. Reports surface in the French media that France is considering an urgent purchase of 2 MQ-9 Reaper systems (4 MQ-9s, 2 ground stations) for use in Afghanistan at a cost of up to $100 million, because 2 of its 3 deployed EADS SIDM/ Harfang UAVs are grounded for repairs, and have had issues with human error and contractor support.

France has advanced UAV programs in development, in collaboration with other European countries, at the medium, heavy, and UCAV levels. A recent test of the jet-powered Barracuda UAV demonstrator in Canada, and ongoing progress on the multinational Talarion and nEUROn UCAV underscores the seriousness of those efforts, but they are not realistic fielding options. Assuming that France does not wish to lease a UAV service as the Australians, British, Canadians, and Dutch have done, the MQ-9 offers commonality with the American, British, and Italian contingents in theater, as well as a UAV with strong weapons options that set it apart from the rest.

A wild card in this situation is France’s reputation for pervasive industrial espionage, even during combat operations. With a number of advanced French-led UAV programs in development, it would certainly be possible to make very good use of full access to America’s most advanced serving UAV. Reuters || In French: Le Point magazine EXCLUSIF | France-Soir | Le Monde | TF 1.

Oct 9/09: Sensors. Northrop Grumman Space and Mission Systems Corp., of San Jose, CA, receives a $9.6 million contract to perform preliminary design for a scaled communications intelligence/ Airborne signals intelligence (COMINT/SIGINT) payload system for the MQ-9. At this time, $7.6 million has been committed by the 659th AESS/SYKA at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH (FA8620-08-C-3004).

FY 2009

MQ-9 Kandahar

MQ-9 at Kandahar
(click to view full)

Sept 30/09: Support. A $19.5 million contract to provide various MQ-9 Reaper equipment and items including aircraft supplemental spares, 30 day pack-up kits, and ground support equipment. At this time, the entire amount has been committed by the 703th AESG/SYK at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH (FA8620-05-G-3028, DO 0034).

Sept 23/09: Weapons. An AIM-9X Sidewinder advanced air-to-air missile fired from a U.S. Air Force F-16C fighter sinks a rapidly moving target boat in the Gulf of Mexico. The missile had received a software upgrade, allowing its imaging infrared seeker to engage land targets as well as other aircraft. This is the 3rd success of the missile in ground-strike mode, following tests in April 2008 (F-16 vs. maneuvering boat), and March 2007 (F-15C vs. moving armored personnel carrier).

This test is especially significant for the MQ-9, as the AIM-9X is one of its permitted weapons. More to the point, unlike helicopter-fired missiles such as the AGM-114 Hellfire, Sidewinders are specifically designed to deal with the cold and conditions found at high altitude, where helicopters do not fly. That makes the AIM-9X a very useful dual role option for Reapers that want to make full use of their 50,000 foot flight ceiling. Raytheon release.

Sept 13/09: Kill it. The USAF reportedly sends fighters to shoot down an MQ-9 over Afghanistan, after the UAV stopped responding to pilot commands. The Reaper would not have been a danger to anyone, but the Air Force is not willing to allow the UAV and its systems to fall into untrusted hands. See also Oct 14/09 entry. Popular Science | Aviation Week.

Rogue shot down

Aug 26/09: Italy. A $10.25 million modified contract for 1 year of Contractor Logistics Support for the Italian purchase of MQ-9 Reaper aircraft under the Foreign Military Sales program (q.v. Feb 5/09 entry). At this time $5 million has been committed by the 703th AESG/SYK at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH (FA8620-05-G-3028 0058030).

March 10/09: Weapons. The USAF announces that a series of GBU-38 JDAM drops have gone well, and they expect certification for the Reapers to use the 500 pound GPS-guided bombs soon. USAF 703rd Aeronautical Systems Group Commander, Col. Chris Coombs says that:

“Our next step is to add the GBU-39B Small Diameter Bomb which will further increase the types of target sets the warfighter can engage.”

The GBU-39 is a 250 pound glide bomb with similar GPS guidance, but its shape and fuze make it good at penetrating hardened bunkers or exploding in the open. The current launcher carries 4 bombs, and will be interesting to see if the GBU-39 ends up needing a smaller launcher for MQ-9 use.

Feb 5/09: The USAF is awarding a maximum $81.3 million firm-fixed-price contract to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems of San Diego, CA for 2 MQ-9 Reapers and 2 Mobile Ground Control Stations. Italy is the buyer, and $40 million has been committed. The 703 AESG/SYF at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH officially manages this Foreign Military Sales contract (FA8620-05-G-3028).

Per the Aug 1/08 entry, Italy’s DSCA request involved 4 MQ-9 UAVs, 3 Mobile Ground Control Stations, and 5 years of maintenance and other support. The approach taken by Britain’s RAF has been to secure the authorization and then buy UAVs at a gradual pace (See Sept 5/08 entry); Italy appears to be following that model as well.

Italy buys 2

Feb 3/09: Training. Members from the 432d Wing complete a successful test flight from Holloman AFB, New Mexico after flying an MQ-9 Reaper over Fort Irwin, California training air space using “remote split operations.” This approach, which is used extensively on CENTCOM’s front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, involves Predator aircraft launched by crews at one location, while flown by crews from another location via satellite link.

Holloman AFB is the USAF’s preferred location for future MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1B Predator formal training units, which will move from Creech AFB near Las Vegas once Holloman is ready. Shephard report | USAF re: remote split operations.

Jan 29/09: Turkey. The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News reports that Turkey is looking to buy MQ-9 Reapers, and submitted a formal request in December 2008. The ultimate decision by the United States on whether to accept and present this formal export request to Congress through the US DSCA is expected in the next 6 months – and as of 2012, no such request had been published.

A refusal can be expected to have an impact on Turkish procurement policy. The Hurriyet article does not believe that Turkey’s membership n the F-35 program would be affected, but it does suggest that Turkey would step up existing efforts to diversify its weapon sources.

Nov 26/08: A firm-fixed-price, not-to-exceed $115.2 million contract for 16 “Global War on Terror” MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. At this time $52.9 million has been committed. This contract is managed by the 703 AESG/SYK at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, OH (FA8620-05-G-3028).

FY 2008

Mariner over Water

Mariner UAV
(click to view full)

Sept 5/08: UK. Britain’s Royal Air Force is set to expand its fleet of Reapers to 5 after Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) agreed to buy 2 more airframes from the US, and to replace the MQ-9 that crashed in April 2008. Shephard:

“According to DE&S’ Strategic UAV Experimental Integrated Procurement Team, which is heading up the UK’s Reaper procurement activities, the DSCA notice allows the UK to procure the aircraft in batches as required. Effectively this means that the UK has a further seven aircraft to draw on before it would have to go back through the Foreign Military Sales Process.”

Aug 18/08: Training. USAF Air Combat Command commander Gen. John D.W. Corley announces that Holloman AFB, NM, is the preferred potential location for an additional unmanned aircraft system Formal Training Unit (FTU). This is the first step that could lead to the initial stand-up of FTU operations for MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper combat operators, in 2009, pending a favorable environmental impact analysis.

The current MQ-1/MQ-9 FTU is at Creech AFB, NV. USAF release.

Aug 8/08: Performance problems. A US GAO decision denies Lockheed Martin’s bid protest over the BAMS maritime surveillance UAV contract – and cites ongoing performance issues with its key partner General Atomics as the reason. The GAO summary for Bid Protest B-400135 states that:

“Agency reasonably determined, in procurement for unmanned maritime surveillance aircraft, that awardee [DID: Northrop Grumman] had significant advantage over protester [DID: Lockheed Martin] with respect to past performance where: protester’s subcontractor [DID: General Atomics], responsible for approximately 50 percent of contract effort, had recent past performance history of being unable to resolve staffing and resource issues, resulting in adverse cost and schedule performance on very relevant contracts for unmanned aircraft; record did not demonstrate that protester’s subcontractor had implemented systemic improvement that resulted in improved performance; [in contrast] operating division of the awardee also had performance problems on very relevant contracts for unmanned aircraft, many had been addressed through systemic improvement; and overall performance of awardee’s team on most evaluated contract efforts was rated better than satisfactory, while the overall performance of protester’s team on 11 of 26 contract efforts was only marginal.”

The Lockheed Martin team’s BAMS entry was built around the Mariner UAV, an MQ-9 variant. The GAO decision then goes on to discuss these issues in more detail:

“In contrast, however, GA-ASI’s contract performance was a matter of great concern to the agency. Specifically, while recognizing that GA-ASI had demonstrated a willingness and ability to respond on short notice to evolving Global War on Terror (GWOT) warfighter requirements, the SSEB found that GA-ASI’s performance demonstrated: inadequate staffing, resulting in performance problems on SDD contracts for the MQ-9 Reaper (a second-generation, Predator B model) and the MQ-1C Extended Range/Multipurpose (ER/MP) UAS (a second-generation Predator model); unfavorable schedule performance on four of seven relevant GA-ASI contracts, including very relevant contracts for the MQ-9 Reaper, UAS ground control stations, MQ-1C ER/MP, I-GNAT Extended Range UAS (a version of the Predator with some differences for the Army), and MQ-1 baseline Predator; poor performance in meeting technical quality requirements on three of seven GA-ASI contracts, including contracts for the MQ-9 Reaper, MQ-1C ER/MP, and I-GNAT Extended Range UAS; and workload exceeded the firm’s capacity on five of seven GA-ASI contracts, including contracts for the MQ-9 Reaper, UAS ground control stations, MQ-1C ER/MP, I-GNAT Extended Range UAS, and MQ?1/MQ-9 maintenance support. In summary, the SSEB found the overall performance of GA-ASI on its very relevant contracts for the MQ-9 Reaper (most delivery orders), UAS ground control stations, MQ-1C ER/MP, and I-GNAT Extended Range UAS to be marginal.”

Aug 1/08: Italy. The US DSCA announces [PDF] Italy’s formal request to buy 4 MQ-9 UAVs, 3 Mobile Ground Control Stations, 5 years of maintenance support, engineering support, test equipment, ground support, operational flight test support, communications equipment, technical assistance, personnel training/equipment, spare and repair parts, and other related elements of logistics support.

The estimated cost is $330 million, and will not require the assignment of any U.S. Government or contractor representatives to Italy. That country already operates some of General Atomics’ MQ-1 Predator systems.

The principal contractors will be: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. in San Diego, CA (UAVs); General Atomics Lynx Systems San Diego, California (lynx ground viewing radar); and Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems El Segundo, California (surveillance turrets).

DSCA request: Italy (4)

Aug 1/08: Germany. The US DSCA announces [PDF] Germany’s formal request to buy 5 MQ-9 UAVs, 4 Mobile Ground Control Stations, 1 year of maintenance support, engineering support, test equipment, ground support, operational flight test support, communications equipment, technical assistance, personnel training/equipment, spare and repair parts, and other related elements of logistics support.

The estimated cost is $205 million, and will not require the assignment of any U.S. Government or contractor representatives. The principal contractors will be: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. in San Diego, CA (UAVs); General Atomics Lynx Systems San Diego, California (lynx ground viewing radar); and Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems El Segundo, California (surveillance turrets).

In the end, however, the Germans chose to lease IAI’s Heron-1 UAVs, and left its option to buy MQ-9s on the table. Germany will also operate up to 5 RQ-4 Eurohawk UAVs from Northrop Grumman for strategic reconnaissance.

DSCA request: Germany (5)

July 15/08: UK support team. General Atomics and Cobham plc announce a teaming agreement with Cobham plc to cover whole life support arrangements for Britain’s “GA-ASI products.” This teaming arrangement will initially focus on supporting the UK’s existing MQ-9 Reapers currently in operation with the Royal Air Force (RAF) over Afghanistan.

The MQ-9s are currently the British military’s only significant GA-ASI products. The release says that this arrangement “will develop support solutions that could be used by the UK MoD to offer increased flexibility and sovereignty over existing arrangements.” Immediate dividends will be small, but if competitors fail to match these kinds of arrangements, it could give General Atomics an important advantage as it seeks to sell more MQ-9s to Britain and offer other products like the derivative Mariner maritime UAV or other members of its signature Predator family. GA-ASI release | Cobham release [PDF].

Mantus UCAV

Mantis UCAV
(click to view larger)

July 14/08: Mantis vs. Reaper? The UK Ministry of Defence operates MQ-9s, but it has also entered into a jointly funded 1st phase of the Mantis UAS Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrator program with BAE Systems. The mockup unveiled at the Farnborough 2008 air show shows a UCAV that’s clearly in the MQ-9 Reaper’s class, with up to 6 weapons pylons for Paveway IV laser/GPS guided bombs and Brimstone missiles. The design looks less like a high-altitude strike UAV, however, and more like the offspring of the USA’s A-10 “Warthog” battlefield support plane and Argentina’s IA 58 Pucara counter-insurgency aircraft.

BAE will work with the MoD and key UK industrial parties including Rolls-Royce (RB 250 turboprops for now), QinetiQ, GE Aviation, SELEX Galileo and Meggitt, and the design and manufacture of the twin-engine Mantis and associated ground control infrastructure are already underway. Assembly, vehicle ground testing and infrastructure integration testing will take place later in 2008, with first flight currently scheduled for early 2009. In the end, BAE would add Dassault to its team, and make Mantis the core of their Telemos future UAV’s bid to supplement or replace Britain’s MQ-9s. BAE release | Flight International | Defense Update | Defense News | Aviation Week | domain-B | WIRED Danger Room.

June 6/08: Weapons hot. A British MoD article states that the UK’s Reapers have crossed the line, and become weapons platforms as well:

“An RAF Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle used its weapons system in support of coalition forces in Afghanistan for the first time this week. As with any other munitions this was carried out under strict Rules of Engagement… RAF Reapers are used predominately to provide Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR)… 39 Squadron, which is the RAF’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron, was reformed in January this year and operates from Nevada in the USA as part of the USAF 432nd Wing. The Reaper aircraft are based in Afghanistan but are remotely controlled by satellite link from the USA… Although it’s an RAF Squadron, 39 Squadron is comprised of personnel from all three UK services; RAF, Royal Navy and the Army.”

UK – armed.

March 31/08: A firm fixed price contract for $28.9 million, to build, test, and deliver 4 MQ-9 UAVs. All funds have been committed (FA8620-05-G-3028 ORDER 0031).

USA buys 4

March 7/08: Jane’s Defence Weekly reports that Britain’s MQ-9 DSCA request has “not survived the planning round 2008 [PR08] process.” If true, there will be no further orders.

Jan 16/08: A firm fixed price contract for $16.2 million to build, test, and deliver one (1) MQ-9 Reaper along with containers, a 30-day pack-up kit, and initial spares. At this time $12.1 million has been committed (FA8620-05-G-3028-0041).

USA buys 1

Jan 3/08: The US DSCA announces the United Kingdom’s official request for “10 MQ-9 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) aircraft, 5 Ground Control Stations, 9 Multi-Spectral Targeting Systems (MTS-B/AAS-52), 9 AN/APY-8 Lynx Synthetic Aperture Radar/Ground Moving Target Indicator (SAR/GMTI) systems, 3 Satellite Earth Terminal Sub Stations (SETSS), 30 H764 Embedded Global Positioning System Inertial Navigation Systems, Lynx SAR and MTS-B spares, engineering support, test equipment, ground support, operational flight test support, communications equipment, technical assistance, personnel training/equipment, spare and repair parts, and other related elements of logistics support. The estimated cost is $1.071 billion.”

The principal contractors will be General Atomics’ Aeronautical Systems (MQ-9) and Lynx Systems (Lynx ground scan radar) subsidiaries in San Diego, CA, and Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems in El Segundo, CA (MTS-B/AAS-52).

Britain decided to stand up a Reaper flight in 2007, after early experience with 3 unarmed MQ-9s in Afghanistan proved positive. These aircraft would form the B Flight of a new UAV squadron, while A flight will comprise the existing RAF detachment within the UK-USAF Joint (MQ-1A) Predator Task Force located at Nellis AFB, NV. At present, the British say they are looking at the MQ-9 only as a high-end surveillance drone to complement their mid-range Watchkeeper Mk450 UAVs and short-range Deseert Hawk and RQ-11 Raven UAVs.

DSCA request: UK (10)

RAF MQ-9, Kandahar

RAF MQ-9, Kandahar
(click to view full)

Nov 9/07: UK. The UK MoD publishes “Reaper takes to the air in Afghanistan,” confirming that the RAF’s first MQ-9 has been deployed and is performing surveillance missions in theater. The UAVs will be operated by personnel from the RAF’s 39 Squadron Personnel, which in addition to the RAF personnel also has Army and Navy personnel working in a number of functional areas. The release adds that:

“The Reaper capability is still being developed. Training will continue alongside operational missions and there will be a steady build up to a full UK capability. The Reaper UAV is currently unarmed. It is capable of being armed and the MOD is investigating arming options.”

Britian arranged to buy a 3rd UAV in 2007 as part of the UK’s Urgent Operational Request, and all 3 MQ-9s were delivered into theater in October 2007.

Nov 7/07: 1st bomb drop. The USAF confirms that the MQ-9A Reaper demonstrated its hunter-killer capability by dropping its first precision-guided bomb over the Sangin region of Afghanistan.

“[The UAV] was on the hunt for enemy activity when the crew received a request for assistance from a joint terminal attack controller on the ground. Friendly forces were taking fire from enemy combatants. The JTAC provided targeting data to the pilot and sensor operator, who fly the aircraft remotely from Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The pilot released two GBU-12 500-pound laser-guided bombs, destroying the target and eliminating the enemy fighters.”

Oct 28/07: Boom! The USAF reports that In Afghanistan, the MQ-9 Reaper conducted its first precision combat strike sortie, targeting enemy combatants in Deh Rawod with a Hellfire missile. The strike was reported as successful.

1st Reaper strikes

Oct 07: Initial operating capability reached.

IOC

Oct 1/07: Support. A $21.9 million contract modification for MQ-9 organizational maintenance support at Creech AFB, NV and deployed sites worldwide. This support includes aircrew duties/responsibilities, maintaining equipment in accordance with approved applicable AF technical engineering data, quality assurance, parts/supplies ordering and accountable and flying and maintenance schedule development.

At this time all funds have been committed. Air Combat Command AMIC/PKC in Newport News, VA manages this contract (FA4890-07-C-0009-P00006).

FY 2005 – 2007

US orders; Britain requests Reapers.

MQ-9 Predator-B w Paveways

MQ-9 w. Paveways
(click to view larger)

Aug 31/07: Support. A $65 million firm fixed price contract for various MQ-9 Reaper equipment and items including Aircraft Initial Spares, 30 Day Pack-up Kits, and Ground Support Equipment. All funds are already committed (FA8620-05-G-3028, Order 0034).

June 22/07: +4. A firm-fixed-price contract modification for $44 million to build, test, and deliver 4 MQ-9 UAVs AVs and associated equipment, to include initial spares, ground support equipment, and 30-day pack-up kits.

Solicitations began in January 2006, negotiations were complete in April 2007, and work will be complete by December 2009. All funds are already committed (FA8620-05-G-3028-0007, PO 0001).

USA buys 4

May 7/07: +4. A $59 million firm-fixed-price contract to build, test, and deliver 4 MQ-9 UAVs and associated equipment, to include initial spares, ground support equipment, and 30-day pack-up kits.

Solicitations began in January 2006, negotiations were complete in April 2007, and work will be complete by December 2009. All funds are already committed (FA8620-05-G-3028-0007).

USA buys 4

March 15/07: +2. A $43.7 million firm-fixed-price contract modification to build, test, and deliver 2 MQ-9 UAVs, 2 mobile ground control stations, and associated equipment to include initial spares, ground support equipment, pack-up kits, and Ku SATCOM antennas. At this time, $32.7 million has been committed. Work will be complete in December 2008 (FA8620-05-G-3028, order number 0024/no modification number at this time).

USA: 2

Sept 27/06: UK. The US DSCA announce’s Britain’s formal export request for 2 MQ-9 UAVs, 2 Multi-Spectral Targeting Systems (MTS-B) surveillance & targeting turrets, 2 AN/APY-8 Lynx Synthetic Aperture Radar (airborne), 1 Ground Control Station, 1 Mobile Ground Control Station, Ku-Band Communications spares, Lynx Synthetic Aperture Radar Spares, engineering support, test equipment, ground support, operational flight test support, communications equipment, and other forms of support and assistance.

The principal contractors will be General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in San Diego, CA; General Atomics Lynx Systems in San Diego, California; and Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems in El Segundo, CA (MTS-B). Implementation of this proposed sale won’t require the assignment of any U.S. Government or contractor representatives to the United Kingdom.

Instead, RAF 39 Squadron began operating out of Creech AFB near Vegas in January 2007, alongside the American Reaper force. Sources: DSCA.

DSCA request: UK (2)

Sept 22/06: Support. A $27.6 million cost-plus-fixed fee contract modification for 4 field compatible aircraft maintenance test stations, 2 MD-1A mobile ground control stations, 2 MD-1A fixed ground control stations, 5 MD-1B dual control mobile ground control stations, and non-recurring engineering per FY 2006 Predator MQ-1 and Reaper MQ-9 requirements. At this time, $20.7 million has been obligated. Solicitations began in June 2006, negotiations were complete September 2006, and work will be complete September 2008 (FA8620-05-G-3028 Delivery Order 0022)

Sept 22/06: Support. A $15.8 million firm-fixed-price contract modification for 18 ground data terminals, ground support equipment, 2 remote split operation kits, 1 replenishment spares package kit, 1 initial spares package, and 2 primary Predator sitcom link modem assemblies per FY 2006 Predator MQ-1 and Reaper MQ-9 requirements. Solicitations began in June 2006, negotiations were complete September 2006, and work will be complete June 2010. At this time, $11.8 million has been obligated (FA8620-05-G-3028 Delivery Order 0010)

According to Pentagon documents, FY 2006 Predator UAV budgets were $153.8 million from the US Army, and $64.1 million from the US Air Force. These figures would not include supplemental funding budgets, which are intended for use to replace war materials and sustain equipment in the field.

MQ-9 Mariner Australia

MQ-9 trials
(click to view full)

May-September 2006: Australia. Australia’s government announces a September 2006 trial across Australia’s North West Shelf region, using a General Atomics MQ-9 Mariner Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and an Armidale Class patrol boat. Australian DoD release | Spacewar | DSTO mini-site.

June 30/06: Upgrades. a $5.2 million cost-plus-fixed-fee contract modification for the retrofit of 5 MQ-9 Predator aircraft with upgraded landing gear for increased landing capacity, Hellfire/EGBU-12/Special Project A Payloads, and interim modem assembly capabilities. Also included in the cost of this effort is one lot of spares and system integration lab upgrade work.

Solicitations began April 2006, negotiations were complete June 2006, and work will be complete June 2007. All funds have been committed (F33657-02-G-4035/order #0028, modification #13).

Jan 25/06: +5. A $41.4 million fixed-price incentive firm contract to build, test, and deliver 5 MQ-9 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and associated equipment, to include initial spares, ground support equipment, pack-up kits, and Ku SATCOM antennas.

Solicitations began November 2004, negotiations were complete in December 2005, and work will be complete by March 2008. All funds are already committed (FA8620-05-G-3028 Order 0004).

USA buys 5

March 29/05: A $68.2 million cost plus incentive fee contract for the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) of the MQ-9 Hunter-Killer Aircraft. The effort includes options for the retrofit of 4 aircraft to the SDD configuration, along with communications and ground and flight test facility upgrades. At this time, $15.6 million of the funds have been committed (F33657-02-G-4035, Order 23).

MQ-9 Ancillaries

NASA MQ-9 Image San Diego Fire 2007-10-24

Ikhana fire image
(click to view full)

The Reaper’s technical maturity and 3,000 pound payload limit make it a very attractive platform for testing advanced military surveillance payloads, even as NASA’s MQ-9 Ikhana is used to test advanced civil payloads for monitoring wildfires, etc. Tested payloads can be added to the MQ-9s arsenal of options, enhancing its value. Once tested, however, they can also be added to other platforms, from manned aircraft like the USA’s MC-12W Liberty King Air twin-turboprops, to other high-end UAVs, and even pending airships like the Army’s LEMV.

The following set of entries is meant to be illustrative of the payloads under active consideration, rather than being an exhaustive list of milestones & contracts.

 

Jan 22/14: Pandora EW. General Atomics and Northrop Grumman conduct the 2nd USMC demonstration of MQ-9s as electronic warfare platforms, using NGC’s Pandora low-power, wideband electronic warfare pod. They tested Pandora’s compatibility with the Reaper’s avionics and command and control architecture, including control of the Pandora pod’s operations, and tested the entire system’s integration into a Marine Command and Control (C2) network.

A Cyber/Electronic Warfare Coordination Cell (CEWCC) located at MCAS Yuma ran the pod and UAV, which supported a large aircraft strike package that included EA-6B Prowler jamming aircraft. General Atomics sees this as an important way to broaden the Reaper’s usefulness, in order to keep it from budget cuts. Sources: GA-ASI, “GA-ASI and Northrop Grumman Showcase Additional Unmanned Electronic Attack Capabilities in Second USMC Exercise”.

Feb 13/13: MALD-J EW. Raytheon Company and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. announce that they’re working to integrate MALD/MALD-J decoys onto the MQ-9 Reaper UAV. Ground Verification Test phase completed in November 2012 at GA-ASI’s Gray Butte Flight Operations Facility in Palmdale, CA. Integration is estimated to conclude in 2013.

The Reaper’s slow speed means that their use would need to be timed well, and arranged carefully so as not to make their mission obvious. On the other hand, the Israelis have made an art form out of using drones to provoke air defense batteries into using their radars and communications, then harvesting the emissions for analysis and counter-programming. Enough of that in advance, and the MALDs could just look like the big killer strike wave has finally arrived. Throw in MALD-Js for jamming, and the potential uses multiply further.

Aug 5/11: Missile Defense? The US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) announces a maximum $48.4 million indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity, cost-plus-fixed-fee contract to General Atomics Aeronautical in Poway, CA to develop and demonstrate “precision three-dimensional tracking of ballistic missiles from a long endurance, high-altitude unmanned air system.” General Atomics has confirmed the identity of the HALE test system as the MQ-9 Reaper UAV. Read “Ballistic Missile Tracking with UAVs: HALE, Well Met” for full coverage.

Jan 27/11: Gorgon Stare. The twin-pod Gorgon Stare payload for UAVs and aircraft is supposed to let troops cover square kilometers with surveillance, instead of looking through a soda straw, and had been slated for deployment on MQ-9s. But the left-wing CDI reveals that a recent testing report gave it a terrible rating.

The US Air Force has some disagreements with that assessment, but probably regrets their recent boasting to the Washington Post. So does Chuck Spinney, albeit for a different set of reasons.

Nov 1/10: ASIP-2. Northrop Grumman Space and Missions Systems Corp., San Jose, CA receives a contract modification which will “provide for a prototype sensor for the MQ-9 installed in a pod to support a limited flight demonstration of the ASIP-2 functionally. The contractor shall support the General Atomics effort to certify the pod for air worthiness on the MQ-9.”

ASIP is the Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload. This electronic eavesdropping pod from Northrop Grumman has been in testing for the RQ-4 Global Hawk, as well as aircraft like the U-2 and RC-12, but it is also within the Reaper’s payload limit. At this time, $5.4 million has been committed by the ASC/WINK at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH (FA8620-08-C-3004).

Oct 27/10: TRACER. Lockheed Martin’s tree-penetrating Tactical Reconnaissance and Counter-Concealment-Enabled Radar (TRACER) flies for the 1st time aboard NASA’s Ikhana MQ-9, because the Army Gray Eagle MQ-1C fleet that will eventually host the external unpressurized TRACER pods are all busy on operations.

TRACER is a dual-band synthetic-aperture radar (SAR), designed to detect vehicles, buildings and other man-made objects that are buried, camouflaged or concealed under trees and other foliage. The flight tests on Ikhana focused on the radar’s performance in the harsh environment of the unpressurized pod, as the TRACER system will eventually be installed on a variety of manned and unmanned aircraft. Lockheed Martin.

Dec 16/09: Gorgon Stare. The first 3 “Gorgon Stare” surveillance pods are reportedly slated to deploy to Afghanistan in March-April 2010, mounted on MQ-9 Reapers. Reapers can carry the 1,100 pound pods, MQ-1 Predators cannot, and this was reportedly one of the reasons for the USAF’s shift toward the Reaper as its future mainstay UAV.

Using a UAV for surveillance is often like looking through a soda straw. Gorgon Stare begins to fix this issue. Sierra Nevada Corp’s The ISR pod uses 5 high-zoom cameras and 4 infrared cameras to take pictures from different angles, then combines them into a larger picture. Tranche 1 pods can reportedly scan a 4km square area, provide 10 video images to 10 different operators at the same time, and support up to 12 independent ROVER/OSVRT queries, in contrast to an MQ-1 Predator’s one. The next 6 Tranche 2 pods will raise those numbers to 30 clips and 30 different operators by late 2010. By fall 2011, Gorgon Stare Tranche 3 will use 6 of each sensor type, expand the “stare” to 8 square kilometers from 4, and is expected to offer up to 30 ROVER queries, with up to 65 video images deliverable to up to 65 different operators. Gorgon Stare is designed to be platform-agnostic, and to integrate into the USA’s Distributed Common Ground System.

Ultimately, the USAF reportedly wants the Gorgon Stare system to become its standard sensor pod for wide-area, persistent surveillance – though the ARGUS-IS program is reportedly delivering a 92-feed, 1.8 gigapixel camera for Special Forces use, which would mount on the A160T Hummingbird VTUAV. See also DoD Buzz | Flight International | Gannett’s Air Force Times | LA Times | Popular Science | WIRED Danger Room.

Oct 25/07: Firefighter. As large wildfires rage around San Diego, CA, NASA’s “Ikhana” MQ-9 UAV helps out with an interesting new payload. The UAV carries special thermal-infrared imaging equipment that can look right through smoke and haze, and record high-quality imagery of key hot spots. The imagery is processed on board, downlinked, and overlaid on Google Earth maps at NASA Ames Research Center in Northern California. From there, the National Interagency Fire Center makes it available to incident commanders in the field, so they can assign their fire-fighting resources more intelligently.

Lest anyone think this doesn’t affect military customers, it’s worth noting that there are a lot of military facilities around San Diego. Abroad, potential customers like Canada and Australia face serious wildfire dangers within their vast territories. A UAV that promised to help with that civil problem when it isn’t deployed abroad becomes much easier to support as a military buy. Read: “NASA MQ-9 Imaging California Wildfires” for more.

Additional Readings & Sources

Background: The Reaper Family

Background: Reaper Ancillaries

Specific Countries

Official Reports

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