The Air Force is exploring various interesting options when it comes to finding and deploying a replacement for its MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft and is planning to take its time developing a plan for the future.
The military service is running an interesting program called “MQ-Next” which is not immersed in a world of technological exploration and the “realm of the possible” to determine what future drones used to perform Reaper-like missions will look like. These unmanned aircraft may quite likely be smaller, stealthier, more lethal and even operate in swarms to blanked areas with surveillance. As the Air Force pursues this developmental trajectory, the service is taking great comfort in the fact that its ongoing innovations are gaining extra support, traction and funding by virtue of having time to work with. The MQ-Next does not need to be operational until 2031, which means the service can take the time it needs to identify and develop the best possible next-generation drones for the 2030s and beyond.
“We have three hundred platforms [MQ-9 Reapers] to go into the middle 2030s, so we have time to proceed smartly and look at different systems,” Lt. Gen. David Nahom, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff of the Air Force for Plans & Programs, told the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in an interview.
One fundamental area of developmental emphasis is the ongoing focus on networking, meaning manned-unmanned teaming, multi-platform drone connectivity and unmanned-unmanned or “drone-to-drone” kinds of synergies, Nahom said.
Certainly, networking advances enable the exchange of low-latency data between manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft, allowing the Air Force to possibly field smaller and more survivable drones capable of exchanging surveillance images and targeting data with one another in real-time. This would reduce the need to increase risk by sending larger, potentially more vulnerable less-stealthy platforms into warfare. Drone swarms could blanket an area and prove to be formidable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets by testing enemy air defenses and attacking the perimeter of enemy forces without placing pilots and manned aircraft at risk of an incoming attack.
“There are a lot of ways we can use unmanned systems in much different ways than in the past,” Nahom explained. “We can have unmanned adversary air and platforms tasked with protecting high-value systems.”
This type of research development test and evaluation, innovation and technological exploration is made possible by the continued success and functionality of the MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft, which has been upgraded over the years. Unlike its earliest days, the MQ-9 Reaper of today has mission-extending fuel tanks, a universal weapons interface enabling a wider arsenal of attack weapons, artificial-intelligence-enabled data processing, software upgrades, and sensor enhancements. Additionally, the Air Force has been adjusting the tactics of its MQ-9 Reaper aircraft, such as altering its flight path so that it is less predictable to U.S. adversaries. Now, it can fly at higher altitudes—a capability made possible by substantial improvements in the range and fidelity of the MQ-9 Reaper’s sensors. When it comes to the Air Force goal of providing survivable, persistent ISR, the MQ-9 Reaper has been answering the call.
“We have time to look at all of these possibilities because before the MQ-9s fall off,” Nahom said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.