Warplanes: Too Useful To Replace

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October 20, 2020: The latest version of the American MQ-9B Reaper UAV, SkyGuardian, is selling mainly to export customers. This version was originally called MQ-9B ER (Extended Range) but after potential customers were approached, it was decided to expand the capabilities of MQ-9B ER into what is now the MQ-9 SkyGuardian. New features include compliance with NATO STANAG 4671 standards. This means SkyGuardian can fly in commercial airspace. STANAG 4671 sets the strictest UAV commercial airspace rules in the world. If a UAV is STANAG 4671 compliant it can basically operate anywhere. SkyGuardian can operate as high as 15,000 meters (50,000 feet) and stay in the air for up to 40 hours. This means SkyGuardian can (and has in 2018) flown across the Atlantic. SkyGuardian is equipped with a deicing system and lightning strike resistance. There is more systems redundancy, which increases reliability and reduces losses to mechanical or electrical failure.

SkyGuardian is based on the MQ-9B Reaper, which has been in production since 2013. The MQ-9B cost about $12 million each and the U.S. Air Force has been replacing its older A models with the B model. In mid-2017 a MQ-9B Block 5 model, flew its first combat mission.

The latest 9B is called Block 5 and is a tremendous improvement over 2013's Block 1. The American air force was planning to halt production of Block 5 by 2019 and begin replacing Predator with the new ER/SkyGuardian version, which has passed initial flight tests in 2016 and has already broken endurance records with flights of over 40 hours. The ER is so impressive that the air force is making plans to upgrade Block 5s to the ER standard by equipping older MQ-9s with the larger (by 20 percent) ER wings, a new engine, two additional two fuel tanks (one under each wing) and new fuel management software. There are also several other electronic upgrades. These include the ability to land automatically. The new engine is more reliable and generates much more power on takeoff, enabling the MQ-9 to carry up to 1.3 tons of weapons, about twice what the 9B Block 1 could carry. Fire control electronics and software have been upgraded to enable the MQ-9 to use GPS guided bombs including the 500-pound (227 kg) Paveway smart bomb that uses laser and GPS guidance. Weapons carried now include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, or two 227 kg (500 pound) smart bombs (laser or GPS guided). The new engine and electrical systems generate a lot more electrical power and do so much more reliably, eliminating frequent problems with inadequate or interrupted electrical supplies. With the new electrical systems Predator can handle more powerful sensors and radios.

In addition to larger (24 meters versus 21 meters) wings, the SkyGuardian is heavier (5.6 tons versus 4.6 tons) than Reaper 9B and its payload of 1.3 tons is twice that of the original Reaper. The original MQ-9 Reaper looked like the earlier 1.2-ton MQ-1 Predator but was larger. The 4.6-ton MQ-9 is an 11.6 meters (36 foot) long aircraft with a 21.3 meters (66 foot) wingspan. It has six hard points and can carry 682 kg (1,500 pounds) of weapons. Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance was originally 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in many situations.

Most of the over 200 Reapers built so far have been for the U.S. Air Force and, since introduced in 2007, these Reapers have flown about 2.5 million hours.

Efforts to design and build a Reaper replacement have so far failed, in part because the Reaper keeps getting upgraded to match proposed specifications for a replacement UAV. This a somewhat rare, and welcome, pattern in aircraft (and weapon) design.

 


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