This article first appeared in Aerospace Daily & Defense Report.
There is a sleeper in the race for fielding more unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capability worldwide -- General Atomics Aeronautical Systems is already flying a reduced-signature Predator C and the company is looking to bank its existing gains.
"They already have the ground stations and infrastructure in place. Predator C plugs right into that," says General Atomics chief Tom Cassidy. "Right now there is no prohibition about selling Predator C overseas to NATO countries, Japan or Australia. The entire Predator family is in Missile Technology Control Regime category one."
The new Predator C has a turbojet engine with hidden exhaust and recessed air intakes, swept wings and V-tail for redirecting radar reflections, and some shaping. Depending on how much a customer wants to spend, the signature can be reduced to the point that by using standoff weapons and cooperative tactics with other aircraft, even advanced air defenses can be finessed and avoided.
The capability is making it interesting to the U.S. Navy, Britain and Italy, and widespread interest in what could be a cheaper, modular, alternative to other stealth designs begs the question of how many different missions the new aircraft could address.
The issue would turn around increasing capabilities without the design becoming too large, slow, expensive and vulnerable.
"Ballistic missile defense is another area we're looking hard at," Cassidy tells Aviation Week. "Boost-phase intercept [would be possible] by carrying an interceptor missile that would be cued by other detection devices, as well as an onboard sensor. Or the UAV sensors could cue ground-based or shipboard interceptor missiles. It could go both ways."
An Aegis-based Standard Missile-3 already has destroyed an ailing U.S. intelligence satellite in orbit. Raytheon is being eyed as the source of an air-launched interceptor missile -- a longer-range, faster variant of its AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile.
"We're looking at Predator C as a player in that," Cassidy says. In addition, "We could do a lot of the signals intelligence and electronic attack mission from the Predator C since the EA-6Bs are going away. We're putting 45 KVA [kilovolt-ampere] generators on the Predator B. That's plenty of electric power to hang jammers on the wings. Predator C would be a natural for that too. We have not decided what level of electric power we will have on the Predator C. We'll see what kind of new jammer capabilities are out there."