The U.S. Air Force has ordered another 24 MQ-9 Block 5 Reaper UAVs. Although defense budgets are being cut and the air force is scrounging to come up with enough cash to keep its F-35 production going, the Reaper is still one of the most active combat aircraft in air force service. So the orders just keep on coming, at least as long as there is demand. As long as there is a terrorist threat out there, there will be demand. The U.S. Army and Air Force have over 400 large (1.1-4.7 ton Predators and Reapers) UAVs in service, and it is not certain what these slow moving aircraft should do now that the war in Iraq is over, Afghanistan is winding down, and there will soon not be sufficient demand to keep all these UAVs busy.
The army and air force recognize that these UAVs are much more vulnerable to ground fire against regular troops. Against irregulars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere this was not much of a problem. Over a decade of combat use has demonstrated that these large UAVs are extremely flexible and useful. Users kept finding new things these UAVs could do, and the current users believe that this innovation would continue even in a future conflict against a foe with better anti-aircraft weapons. Meanwhile, there are still a lot of terrorists out there, as well as peacekeeping and disaster relief operations that could use large UAVs. The only problem is that these UAVs are expensive to operate (fuel, parts, operators, and ground crews). The Reaper costs $8,000 an hour to operate while the smaller Predator types are less than half as expensive.
The U.S. Air Force has received over 200 MQ-9 Reaper UAVs so far and still has over a hundred on order. The ones bought in the last year cost about $20 million each (including development costs). The first fifty cost $18 million each and upgrades and inflation keep pushing the price up. The last ones on order, to be delivered in 2018, will cost about $25 million each. Many of the 132 still on order may be cancelled.
The air force stopped buying Predators in 2010 and still has 160 in service. The army is cutting back on orders for its Gray Eagle (an updated Predator) and will probably get only a third of the 500 they originally planned on buying. So far 105 have been ordered and about 80 are in service.
The original MQ-1 Predator UAV has evolved into a family of four aircraft. The Predator is a one ton aircraft that is 8.7 meters (27 feet) long with a wingspan of 15.8 meters (49 feet). It has two hard points, which usually carry one (47 kg/107 pound) Hellfire each. Each hard point can also carry a Stinger air-to-air missile. Max speed of the Predator is 215 kilometers an hour, while cruising speed is 160 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 8,000 meters (25,000 feet). Typical sorties are 12-20 hours each.
The MQ-9 Reaper is a 4.7 ton, 11.6 meters (36 foot) long aircraft with a 21.3 meters (66 foot) wingspan that looks like the MQ-1. It has six hard points and can carry 682 kg (1,500 pounds) of weapons. These 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). Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance is 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft and able to replace F-16s or A-10s in many situations.
The U.S. Army MQ-1C Gray Eagle weighs 1.5 tons, carries 136 kg (300 pounds) of sensors internally and up to 227 kg of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of up to 36 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. Gray Eagle has a wingspan of 18 meters (56 feet) and is 9 meters (28 feet) long. The Gray Eagle can land and take off automatically and carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator).
In 2012, the air force decided to cancel its MQ-X project. This was an effort to develop a replacement for the MQ-9 Reaper. Instead, more money will be invested in developing technology to analyze the enormous quantity of data already generated by its UAVs. For decades the army and navy have complained of the long delays in getting photos taken by air force recon aircraft, and this is now a higher priority.
At the moment, the "next generation Reaper" role will be taken by the existing Avenger ("Predator C"). This 8 ton jet powered aircraft was developed privately by the firm that makes the Predator and Reaper UAVs that MQ-X was to replace. Avenger took its first flight in early 2009. The air force has sent at least one Avenger to Afghanistan. Avenger test flights so far have been encouraging enough for the air force to informally adopt Avenger as the base design for a next generation “Reaper.” Avenger can carry 1.6 tons of weapons or sensors and a slightly larger prototype was recently built, with more to come.
Development of the Avenger began a decade ago. The U.S. Navy has also been impressed and particularly interested in using Avenger to replace the soon-to-be-retired EA-6Bs in their most dangerous attack missions. The air force likes the ability to arm Avenger with a smart bomb, including the 900 kg (2,000 pound) GBU-34 penetrator version.
Avenger looks like a larger jet powered version of the 5 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 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 to hold about a ton of weapons, sensors, or additional fuel to provide another 2 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 for the first version was 1.36 tons (3,000 pounds). 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. Until 2009, the Avenger didn't officially exist and was a "black" (secret) program. Avenger is, like Reaper, a combat UAV that will often carry weapons as well as sensors. Each Avenger costs about $15 million. The Avenger B would probably be a little larger and more expensive. The air force has not yet revealed their wish list of changes for Avenger B.