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April 9, 2020 | International, Aerospace

Could a commercial drone replace the MQ-9 Reaper? The Air Force is considering it.

By: Valerie Insinna

WASHINGTON — The Air Force is looking for a replacement to the stalwart MQ-9 Reaper and intends to explore options ranging from commercial drones built by emerging tech firms to high-end unmanned aircraft, the service's top acquisition official said Tuesday.

Will Roper, the Air Force's assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, said the service is working on a study that will inform the fiscal 2022 budget and lay out a path for replacing the MQ-9 Reaper made by General Atomics.

"The Reaper has been a great platform for us. Four million flight hours, just undeniable overmatch in a low-end uncontested fight, and it is certainly saving lives,” Roper told lawmakers at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. “But as we look to the high end fight, we just can't take them into the battlefield. They are easily shot down.”

The MQ-9 Reaper and its precursor, the MQ-1 Predator, have been the Air Force's workhorse drones in the Middle East over the past two decades, providing both real-time video surveillance and the ability to strike targets. But looking forward, the Reaper is ill-suited to a war with Russia and China while at the same time seen by the Air Force as requiring too much money and manpower to sustain for continued operations in low-threat environments.

There likely won't be a single, one-size fits all solution for replacing the MQ-9, Roper said. The Air Force may need drones that “are more high-end, military-unique” systems, and “they'll likely be expensive,” he acknowledged. There may also be room for unmanned attritable aircraft, which are reusable but are cheap enough that they can be shot down in battle without incurring massive financial losses.

For lower-end missions, the Air Force sees promise in the emerging unmanned systems market, where new entrants have begun creating long-loiter drones for applications in agriculture, communications and the oil and gas sector.

“A lot of companies are targeting that market, not thinking about defense because we've been buying Reapers forever,” Roper said, who added that by buying from promising commercial drone makers, Air Force may be able to influence those companies to keep their supply chains out of China and to incorporate military-specific features — potentially even weapons.

“I think if we do the program right on the commercial side, we might be able to bring a new entrant into defense without making them a defense prime,” he said, adding that funding from the Air Force could help a commercial company move from making prototypes to building up a stable production line that could further be grown to manufacture drones on a more massive scale.

“Working with the Defense Department, you don't need the kind of production capacity that the globe does. So, we're a pretty good first stop,” he said.

However, the Air Force may face an uphill battle in getting Congress to support a plan to replace the Reaper. The service in its FY21 budget request has asked for 24 more MQ-9s before ending the programs of record — a move that would curtail the program from 363 to 337 Reapers.

The early shutdown of the line would have major financial implications for General Atomics, said Chris Pehrson, the company's vice president of strategic development, in a February interview with Air Force Magazine.

“We're actually going out about 22 months ahead of delivery and procuring the long-lead item parts, ... whether it's [satellite communication] equipment or engines ... to negotiate the best prices and get the best deals for the government,” Pehrson said. “Having the rug pulled out from under your feet at the last minute kind of disrupts all your supply chain investments that you're making.”

Top generals in the Middle East and Africa have also raised concerns about the demands for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and privately helped stave off retirements of the MQ-9 by the Air Force in FY21. In its unfunded wish list, U.S. Central Command included additional contractor-flown MQ-9 hours as its number one priority, at a cost of $238 million.

On the same subject

  • Pentagon Report Shows China’s Continually Modernizing and Growing Military Capabilities

    September 7, 2018 | International, Aerospace, Naval, Land, C4ISR

    Pentagon Report Shows China’s Continually Modernizing and Growing Military Capabilities

    By Dean Cheng The Department of Defense has released the latest edition of its report on Chinese military and security developments. Mandated in the fiscal 2000 National Defense Authorization Act, the annual report is an important source of regular updates regarding China's growing military capabilities and its expanding range of security-related activities. Since the People's Republic of China halted the publication of its biennial defense white papers in 2015, there are few other good sources of information on one of the world's largest militaries. An important element of this year's report is the expanded discussion of China's security-related activities, providing a broader, fuller assessment. There is an extensive discussion of China's Belt and Road Initiative, its array of investment projects previously known as the “One Belt, One Road Initiative,” stretching from China to Europe, into the Indian Ocean to Africa, and even across the Pacific to South America. The report discusses the security implications of the Belt and Road Initiative, even though it is primarily a set of economic and political initiatives with limited direct military impact. Ad Feedback This more comprehensive analysis is important, as it captures the Chinese whole-of-society approach to national security. To understand Beijing's challenge to the U.S., it is vital to incorporate not only concerns about the People's Liberation Army and the Chinese government, but also consideration of its diplomatic and economic engagement globally. This year's report also exemplifies why issuing an annual report is important. It highlights the various changes that have been undertaken since the announcement in December 2015 of a series of fundamental overhauls and reforms of the People's Liberation Army. It thus provides a new snapshot of the various improvements and changes in the Chinese military as it continues to modernize all of its services. Much discussed, for example, has been the steady extension of the People's Liberation Army's reach. News reports emphasized that it is acquiring systems that will allow it to strike the United States. The report also notes that “one of the most significant [Navy] structural changes in 2017” has been the tripling of the size of the Chinese marine corps. Coupled with China's first official overseas military base (in Djibouti), it is clear that China is expanding its force-projection capacity. As important, however, have been the changes in the People's Liberation Army's organization and doctrine. This year's report devotes substantial discussion to the evolving organization of PLA Army forces, as well as changes in the Central Military Commission, which manages the overall military. These changes are fundamental, but have taken the past two years to become much more visible. The shift from divisions as the cornerstone of China's ground forces to brigades had long been discussed, but only now is there sufficient evidence to gauge Beijing's progress. The changes in the Central Military Commission structure have been even more complex. When the changes were first announced, the commission initially appeared to be expanding from four general departments to 15 departments, commissions, and offices. It is now clear, however, that in fact the commission has shrunk, with only seven members, rather than the pre-reform 10. Of particular note is the removal of the Logistics Work and Equipment Development departments from the main Central Military Commission structure. Full article:

  • Saab retire le Gripen des essais pour l'armée

    June 14, 2019 | International, Aerospace

    Saab retire le Gripen des essais pour l'armée

    Pascal Schmuck avec ats Le Gripen E de Saab est exclu de la procédure d'évaluation pour un nouvel avion de combat. La décision a été prise par l'Office fédéral de l'armement (armasuisse) après que le constructeur suédois a indiqué qu'il ne participerait pas aux essais en vol. Un rattrapage ultérieur des tests en vol et au sol irait à l'encontre de l'égalité de traitement de tous les candidats et n'est pas une option, indique jeudi armasuisse dans un communiqué. Saab avait précédemment indiqué que le calendrier de développement de son avion n'était pas adapté au plan suisse visant à tester des appareils pleinement opérationnels dès 2019. Solutions alternatives Saab avait soumis diverses solutions alternatives pour pouvoir participer aux essais en vol de cette année. Armasuisse avait rejeté la proposition du constructeur suédois de mettre à disposition un Gripen C pleinement opérationnel en plus d'un avion d'essai Gripen E pour les tests en vol et au sol. Saab estime que d'autres concurrents ont également démontré leurs capacités sur des plateformes existantes, qui diffèrent des versions définitives à livrer. Dans la procédure d'évaluation en vue de l'acquisition d'un nouvel avion de combat - en remplacement du F/A-18 - l'avion furtif Lockheed Martin F-35, le F/A-18 Super Hornet de Boeing, le Rafale du constructeur français Dassault et l'Eurofighter d'Airbus restent en course. Ils ont subi de nombreux essais en vol à Payerne (VD). Les essais en vol font partie de la procédure d'évaluation concernant l'acquisition d'un nouvel avion de combat à partir de 2025, pour un montant maximal de six milliards de francs. Le choix du type d'appareil reviendra au Conseil fédéral. «Le meilleur choix» Dans son communiqué, Saab se disait convaincu que le Gripen E représente le meilleur choix pour la Suisse. Ce modèle se distingue de ses concurrents en étant le tout dernier système d'avions de combat, selon le constructeur suédois. Sa production a déjà commencé et le premier avion sera livré cette année. L'offre soumise en janvier dernier est toujours valable. Saab est prêt à s'engager à livrer 40 Gripen E-fighter dans les délais et à respecter toutes les spécifications et le budget prévu. L'offre inclut également un programme de support complet, impliquant les fournisseurs locaux, afin d'assurer des coûts d'exploitation les plus bas possible, ainsi que la plus grande autonomie. Déjà un échec en 2014 Lors du dernier processus d'acquisition d'un nouvel avion de combat, Saab avait déjà proposé à la Suisse l'achat du Gripen E, en commun avec les forces aériennes suédoises. A l'époque, le calendrier de développement prévoyait une livraison à la Suisse en 2021. Mais, en mai 2014, la population a rejeté en votation l'achat de 22 avions de combat Gripen pour 3,1 milliards de francs. Saab a alors modifié le calendrier et l'a adapté aux besoins de la Suède et du Brésil. Comparaison au second semestre 2020 Pour chaque candidat, armasuisse, en coopération avec l'Etat-major de l'armée, les Forces aériennes, la Base logistique de l'armée et la Base d'aide au commandement, rassemblera dans des rapports spécialisés les résultats de la phase d'analyse et d'essais. Ces rapports techniques constitueront la base d'une comparaison systématique et complète entre les différents candidats, qui sera effectuée au cours du second semestre 2020. Ils serviront également à déterminer pour chaque modèle d'avion la taille nécessaire de la flotte. Sur cette base, armasuisse préparera un deuxième appel d'offres, conformément au calendrier actuel, et le remettra aux candidats. Une fois les résultats reçus, l'office fédéral comparera les différents postulants sur la base des rapports spécialisés et déterminera l'utilité globale pour chacun d'entre eux. Un rapport d'évaluation sera ensuite établi, dans lequel l'utilité globale sera comparée aux coûts d'acquisition et de fonctionnement pendant trente ans. (nxp)

  • Contract Awards by US Department of Defense - July 15, 2019

    July 16, 2019 | International, Aerospace, Naval, Land, C4ISR, Security, Other Defence

    Contract Awards by US Department of Defense - July 15, 2019

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