While the U.S. Air Force searches for a MQ-9 Reaper replacement, the U.S. Marine Corps has decided to adopt the Reaper because it is ideal for its current needs, which involve supporting small marine detachments spread out over large areas in the Pacific. After several years of testing Reapers, the marines have placed a $136 million order for two MQ-9A ER Reaper systems. Each system contains for Reapers plus ground control equipment as well as tools and spare parts for the maintainers to use.
Marines had noticed that the Reaper had been involved in 81 percent of Central Commands (Middle East and Afghanistan) 61,000 airstrikes in 2015 and 2016. In all cases of Reaper involvement, the UAV provided the aerial surveillance that found and confirmed the target. Reapers often carried out the airstrike with laser guided missiles. What attracted the marines was the ability of Reaper to remain in the air longer than piloted aircraft and carry out more thorough and persistent surveillance. All this looked good on paper. In 2019 the marines bought two Reapers and used them to test all the capabilities marines needed. This involved over 15,00o hours in the air for those two MQ-9s, using payloads the marines believed suitable to their needs. In addition to the standard day/night surveillance gear, the marines tried accessories like Starlink satellite communications to augment the standard sat link. This involved adding Starlink backup to the standard sat link connection. Starlink has proved to be far more resistant to hostile jamming or the threat of satellite destruction. Starlink also provides a faster response time for the UAV and sensor operators based in the United States. The Starlink network is still expanding and will soon cover all of the Pacific and East Asia, where the marines expect to operate their reapers in support of many marine detachments, large and small over a wide area. What Reaper sees can be shared with navy and air force aircraft as well as navy ships that fire on targets the marine Reapers detect.
The marine Reaper also has an ESM (Electronics Support Measures) pod capability that provides information the day/night cameras can’t detect. The global data link Reaper uses can share threat and target information with air force, navy and army units, aircraft and ships worldwide.
Another recent development is autonomous take-off and landing software. This software has been available for over a decade but the latest version is even more capable and able to scan a designated airstrip, which might be a stretch of road, and determine if it is suitable. If so, the Reaper lands, using its inflight sense and ability to avoid anything that might suddenly appear on the landing area. The sense and avoid software is something else that was developed after the Reaper entered service in 2007 and has evolved to the point where UAVs can use it to land and take off from aircraft carriers at night. These new capabilities enable Reapers to self-deploy to new operating areas. Their ground support consists of a few dozen maintainers and equipment that can be carried in small transports or even the V-22 vertical take-off and landing transport that operates from ships and land bases. The maintainers and their equipment no longer have to be present at a new base. MQ-9A ER can fly over 8,000 kilometers at a time, moving at a cruising speed of 310 kilometers an hour. Landing one or more times to refuel, an MQ-9A ER can self-deploy anywhere and do so in a day or so, half the time it requires the old way which involved disassembling each Reaper for transport by air and then reassembling the Reaper at the destination. This allows rapid deployment of Reapers to where they are needed. It also means that an enemy seeking to attack the base Reaper is operating from will have a hard time finding it, especially since the “base” can be moved quickly and do so frequently.
Another new capability is communications gear that enables the Reaper to provide satellite communications for marines on the ground, no matter where they are, like mountain valleys that tend to block a lot of ground communications. This kind of equipment was used a lot in Afghanistan, where there are a lot of these radio-blocking valleys. The marine reapers will also use surveillance software capable of quickly spotting any surface vessels. This has made Reaper with a lot of nations that just need good, low-cost maritime surveillance capability. Reaper does that because, at less than $4,000 per flight hour, it is five to fifteen times cheaper than manned aircraft. Reaper availability rates (90 percent) are the highest in air force and naval aviation.
The air force still uses Reaper but plans to retire it in the 2030s as soon as an improved UAV can be found. That has proved to be difficult. The air force is no longer buying new Reapers existing and Reaper squadrons will be disbanded as combat and non-combat losses are incurred. The air force has not yet selected a Reaper replacement and is referring to it as MQ-X and mandated that it must be jet powered.
The five-ton Reaper itself replaced the similar but smaller 1.1-ton MQ-1 Predator. While the last air force Predator was built in 2010 the U.S. Army kept purchasing an upgraded Predator known as the RQ-1C Gray Eagle. Both Predator and Reaper were developed and manufactured by General Atomics.
A decade ago, the air force planned to have over a thousand of these large, armed, Reaper UAVs. That did not happen because most American troops were gone from Iraq and Afghanistan by 2014 and there was less demand for these UAVs and less procurement cash to pay for them.
For over a decade the air force has been seeking a Reaper replacement, mainly in the form of a jet powered UAV. One of the first candidates was the General Atomics Avenger. Development of Avenger began after September 11, 2001. The first flight was supposed to have been in 2007 but there were technical problems that kept coming up. The nine-ton Avenger looked like a larger jet powered version of the five-ton Reaper. Avenger is 13.2 meters (41 feet) long, with a 20.1-meter (66 foot) wingspan, and built to be stealthy. The V shaped tail and smooth lines of the swept wing aircraft made 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 to hold about a ton of weapons, sensors, 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 is designed to minimize the heat signature that sensors can pick up. Total payload is 1.36 tons (3,000 pounds) and total weight of the aircraft is nine tons. Cruising speed is 740 kilometers an hour. The Avenger is designed to fly high (up to 20,000 meters/60,000 feet) and cross oceans. Avenger took its first flight in early 2009. Until 2009 the Avenger didn't officially exist and was a "black" (secret) program. Avenger is, like Reaper, a combat UAV designed to carry weapons as well as sensors. A decade ago, Avenger cost about $15 million each. The air force rejected Avenger in 2012 because it offered marginal improvements over the Reaper. Despite the internal bomb bay, Avenger was expected to be used primarily to carry ground surveillance radar, which could be mounted on the bottom of the aircraft in an aerodynamically smooth enclosure. So far there have been few customers, although it did receive a military designation; MQ-20. Officially the air force bought one and an unidentified U.S. government agency bought up to seven. One Avenger was used in 2016 to drop propaganda leaflets in Syria.
The air force search for a Reaper replacement was suspended until 2022, when the air force announced the revival of an effort to find an MQ-X. Avenger is apparently not a candidate. There are other possibilities. This UAV was built by Lockheed. In 2014 the U.S. Department of Defense revealed that a long rumored RQ-180 UAV did indeed exist and was still in development. The RQ-180 is a large (over 12 tons) and stealthy UAV designed to survive in heavily defended airspace. The earlier RQ-170 was a similar, but smaller, version of the same basic design. RQ-170s were also suspected as being the basis for a larger and stealthier UAV and this is now revealed to be the RQ-180.
Both the RQ-170 and RQ-180 are jet propelled UAVs employing a flying wing design, similar to the X-45s and X-47s built as development aircraft for the U.S. Air Force and Navy. These UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) were built to carry weapons while the similar looking reconnaissance UAVs just carry sensors internally. The RQ-170 and RQ-180 are purely reconnaissance aircraft. The RQ-170 weighs about six tons while the larger RQ-180 weighs at least twice as much. Endurance of the RQ-170 is about six hours while the RQ-180 can stay up three to four times longer. The RQ-180 also carries more capable sensors, apparently some of the ones used in the jet-powered 14-ton RQ-4 Global Hawk. Some RQ-180s have been put into service but only a few have been built so far.
General Atomics continues to update MQ-1 Predator and the latest effort is called Mojave. There is no military designation because no one has ordered Mojave, which is based on the U.S. Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle. Technically the Mojave would be the MQ-1D. It uses current Gray Eagle components but with a more powerful 450 HP engine, compared to MQ-1C’s 180 HP, and a new wing design that is optimized for STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) capabilities. There is new landing gear that can handle taking off and landing on dirt roads or open fields. Mohave is heavier, at 1.6 tons, and has a larger payload. This means it can carry more Hellfire laser guided missiles or a more extensive collection of sensors, including a SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) pod and two missiles at the same time. General Atomics has heard from special operations users of Gray Eagle and other larger UAVs that something like Mojave is needed but no one has developed it yet,
The army Gray Eagle has been upgraded several times. In 2017 the U.S. Army started receiving the new MQ-1C ER (extended range) version and starting in 2018 this is the only model the army will receive. The army has ordered 107 MQ-1Cs since 2010 and plans to eventually have over 150. Currently only about a hundred are in service.
The original MQ-1C Block 1 Gray Eagle weighed 1.5 tons, had a 160 HP engine, carried 135.4 kg (300 pounds) of sensors internally, and up to 227.3 kg (500 pounds) of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of 30 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. MQ-1C has a wingspan of 18 meters (56 feet) and is 9 meters (28 feet) long. The MQ-1C can carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator) or a dozen smaller 70mm guided missiles.
The MQ-1C ER has a better engine, fifty percent more fuel capacity, over 75 percent more endurance (from 30 to 53 hours), and its payload increased by 50 percent from 372 kg (798 pounds) to 558 kg (1,227 pounds). The fuselage has been modified to handle the increased fuel load and has greater reliability and stability in the air. The additional internal space makes it easier to install a Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) that makes it possible to fly in airspace used by civilian manned aircraft.
The MQ-1C itself is an upgrade of the MQ-1 Predator the U.S. Air Force and CIA used extensively since the late 1990s to redefine the use of aircraft for reconnaissance, surveillance, and airstrikes. Fewer than 500 MQ-1s were produced for the air force and CIA before both organizations moved on to the larger MQ-9 Reaper. Meanwhile the army got a customized upgrade of the MQ-1 into production and found it satisfactory. The MQ-9 is larger than the army needs (or can afford) but the MQ-1C was the right size and price for the army. A major reason for developing Gray Eagle was the army did not want to depend on the air force for all its UAV needs and after a major struggle with the Department of Defense bureaucracy, the army got the air force to back off on its efforts to claim control over all UAVs. In this endeavor the army was supported by the navy and marines, who had also had past problems with the air force’s efforts to control everything that flew.
The army needed their own large armed reconnaissance UAVs because, when the air force controls UAVs, air force needs take precedence and the army is left to improvise. The army operates their MQ-1Cs like any other aircraft in Army Aviation Brigades. The UAV operators are located with the rest of brigade personnel and troops on the ground have direct contact with the Gray Eagles and easy access to what it is seeing. General Atomics noted that while the Aviation Brigade helicopters could, and often did, operate from just about anywhere, the Gray Eagles still needed a paved surface for takeoffs and landings. A stretch of paved highway would do but that is not always available and when used the highway requires more manpower to keep it clear of debris or any other obstacles. Mojave is much less demanding and the army is considering purchasing some.
While the army accepted the heavier and more expensive ER version, an even heavier (1.9 tons) and more capable IGE (Improved Gray Eagle) was developed by General Atomics without a contract and presented to the army, which bought 36 IGEs for intelligence missions and the army Special Forces.
Mohave is an impressive version of the original Predator and may find customers who perceive a need for a large UAV that can operate from just about anywhere. The U.S. Air Force already has units that can be sent just about anywhere and turn an abandoned airfield or any reasonably flat surface into an airbase, complete with radar and traffic control, in less than a day. C-17 and C-130 transports can operate from these improvised air bases, and now so can a large UAV that requires a runway.
The air force still considers jet-propulsion as a basic requirement for MQ-X. Yet if you want a version of MQ-X that can operate from just about anywhere, it will have to be something like Mojave or the Marines MQ-9A ER.
Meanwhile Chinese manufacturers developed cheaper clones of Predator and Reaper and sold them, with or without weapons, to anyone who could pay. That destroyed much of the export market for Predators and Reapers. China and Russia are also developing jet-powered UAVs, with the same lack of success, so far, as the United States.