May 6, 2010: A year after the jet powered "Predator C" took its first flight, the manufacturer has revealed a carrier version. Not to be confused with the U.S. Army MQ-1C Sky Warrior, the Predator C "Avenger" is a project that was started before Sky Warrior, and has taken much longer to get off the ground. The first flight was supposed to have been three years ago, but there were technical problems that kept coming up. Now the Sea Avenger is being readied for carrier trials.
The Predator C is 14.2 meters (44 feet) long, and was built to be stealthy. The V shaped tail and smooth lines of the swept wing aircraft will make it difficult to detect by radar. There is a humpbacked structure on top of the aircraft, for the engine air intake. There is an internal bomb bay that hold up to 1.4 tons of weapons, or additional fuel to provide another two hours of flying time, in addition to the standard 20 hours endurance. The 4,800 pound thrust engine appears to be built to minimize the heat signature sensors. The manufacturer, General Atomics, has a division devoted to building stealth features into aircraft. This includes the world's largest indoor radar cross section testing facility. Despite the bomb bay, the Predator C is also expected to be used to carry a ground surveillance radar, which could be mounted on the bottom of the aircraft in an aerodynamically smooth enclosure.
The U.S. Navy has been interested in Predator C since the beginning of development. Thus the Predator C wings can be built to fold, for use on carriers, and has a tail hook, used primarily for carrier landings. The Predator C, unlike the larger Global Hawk, can operate from carriers. The Predator C uses landing gear capable of handling the stress of carrier landings. Sea Avenger is expected to cost nearly $20 million each and weigh over nine tons.
The Predator C is expected to deliver about 85 percent of the performance of the Global Hawk, at about half the price. To compete with this, there is a "Global Hawk Lite" in development. The Predator C is designed to fly high (up to 60,000 feet) and cross oceans. Until last year, the Predator C didn't, officially, exist, and was a "black" (secret) program. No longer.
Most of the cost of these "strategic UAVs" is in the space satellite grade sensors. The MQ-4 Global Hawk, with minimal electronics, costs about $40 million. But you can easily add over $60 million worth of satellite grade gear to either a $20 million Predator C, or a $40 million Global Hawk. Thus Global Atomics is trying to come up with a lot of improved features (more reliable, easier to maintain, cheaper to run) for their Global Hawk competitor.
Sea Avenger can provide carriers with long range reconnaissance capabilities, or bombers for particularly dangerous missions. Manufacturer General Atomics is taking advantage of increased navy interest in carrier based UAVs, in order to get Sea Avenger qualified as carrier capable.