It was only last year that the American jet powered "Predator C" UAV took its first flight. Now the U.S. Navy is checking it out as an electronic warfare aircraft, to complement the existing EA-6B and EA-18G aircraft in particularly dangerous missions. To that end, the Avenger manufacturer just revealed that it has a new, stealthy, version of the Avenger, that would be even more effective as a EA-18G substitute. The stealthy Avenger, which uses a radar absorbing material on its exterior, would also be more effective in heavily defended airspace in general.
Not to be confused with the 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. It's design is based on that of the 4.7 ton Reaper UAV. The first flight of the Avenger was supposed to have been three years ago, but there were technical problems that kept coming up. Apparently it was worth the wait, as the U.S. Navy, Britain and Italy are all anxious to get a closer look at Avenger, and see how they can work it into their UAV plans.
The Predator C is 14.2 meters/44 feet long, and originally designed 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. Cruise speed is about 700 kilometers an hour, and because of its jet propulsion, top speed is probably one or two hundred kilometers an hour greater. The internal bomb bay to hold 1.38 tons of weapons, or additional fuel to provide another two hours of flying time (in addition to the standard 20 hours endurance). Another 1.38 tons of bombs or fuel can be hung under the wings. The jet engine is designed to minimize the heat signature that enemy sensors can pick up.
All this should be no surprise. The Avenger 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 expected to be used primarily 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 have a tail hook, needed for carrier landings. The Predator C, unlike the larger Global Hawk, could operate from carriers. The Predator C uses landing gear from the F-5, an aircraft of the same weight class.
The Reaper (Predator B) costs about seven million dollars each, and the Predator C is expected to weigh, and cost twice as much. But that will still be about half the cost of a 13 ton Global Hawk. Thus the Predator C is expected to deliver about 85 percent of the performance of the Global Hawk, at about half the price. The Predator C is designed to fly high (up to 15,250 meters/50,000 feet) and cross oceans. Until last year, Predator C didn't, officially, exist, and was a "black" (secret) program.
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 $15 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.
Avenger has other missions as well, one of them being shooting down ballistic missiles during the boost phase (initial launch, as it rockets straight up). The small, stealthy Avenger could prowl an area where the missile launchers are, then detect the heat of the take off, and launch a missile from its bomb bay, that would take the missile down.
The navy, and several air forces, are also looking at the Avenger as an ELINT (electronic intelligence) aircraft. The ability to carry a ton of sensors, and stay in the air for twenty hours per sortie, has a lot of appeal for an aircraft that is already stealthy, and doesn't carry a pilot. Moreover, the Avenger can perform ELINT missions entirely autonomously, making it more difficult to detect. General Atomics believes it can get the Predator C to operate (takeoff and land) from a carrier, before any of the other contenders (mainly the 19 ton X-47). The Predator C weighs less than half as much, and has an exemplary track record.
Britain and Italy are particularly keen on getting the Avenger because both these nations already operate Predators or Reapers, which use the same control gear as the Avenger. That, plus both nations are satisfied with General Atomics, and are confident in any new UAVs from the firm. Predator will undergo at least another three years of testing and development before it ready for service.