The Next Generation of UAVs



The U.S. Air Force is initiating a program to develop the Next Generation Unmanned Aerial System (NG-UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicle while Washington is still in an uproar over the last major Air Force contract competition -- the KC-X advanced tanker aircraft. And, the Air Force action takes place while the UAV picture is clouded by a protest filed in May against the Navy's contract award to Northrop Grumman for the Global Hawk-derived RQ-4N aerial vehicle for the Navy's Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) system.

The notice to industry for the NG-UAV sent out by the Air Force in May seeks a follow-on UAV to the highly successful MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper aircraft, the latter a much improved variant of the Q-1 series. Those UAVs -- with the prefix letter "M" -- indicating multimission -- have proved invaluable in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq

The Air Force lists seven potential key missions for the NG-UAV:

  • Limited interdiction
  • Close air support/forward air control
  • Combat search and rescue support
  • Limited suppression of enemy air defenses
  • Joint maritime operation support
  • Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance
  • Force protection (identifying threats such as IEDs, mortars, and rocket sites)
  • These missions are to be carried out in all low- and some medium-threat environments. 

    The NG-UAS platform is planned to have capabilities beyond existing UAVs. Compared to the MQ-1 Predator and the derivative MQ-9 Reaper, the new vehicle would have improved maneuverability and time on station among other features.  The planned initial operational capability of the NG-UAS would be 2015. The MQ-1 Predator, developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, first flew in July 1994; the improved Predator-B, which was redesignated MQ-9 Reaper, first flew in February 2001. Both have been produced in the hundreds. They have suffered significant losses in the combat area, albeit several losses being due to collisions with smaller, low-flying UAVs. Still, their efficacy cannot be questioned.

    General Atomics has already developed a candidate for the NG-UAS role now known as Predator-C. That UAV is believed to have swept-back wings and stealth characteristics. The firm has not "pushed" the Predator-C because of the continuing demand for its Predator and Reaper UAVs.

    Other firms, notably Northrop Grumman, which produces the also highly successful RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV and is said to have a scaled down version in the works, as well as several foreign firms are expected to enter the competition for the NG-UAVs. Still, as both U.S. and foreign aerospace firms consider the Air Force's interest in the next generation UAV, the dark cloud of the controversial KC-X program and now the protesting of the Navy's BAMS competition award hang over the NG-UAS landscape.  

    -- Norman Polmar

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