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How General Atomics Is Going All-In On Making Its Drones Relevant In A Peer-State Conflict

As part of the materials it provided for SOFIC, GA-ASI also released artwork depicting an MQ-9 equipped with the self-defense pod, as well as an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. The U.S. Air Force has been exploring arming its Reapers with these air-to-air weapons for self-defense and potentially other roles, including knocking down incoming cruise missiles.

The concept art of the MQ-9 launching two of the smaller UASs also shows that Reaper fitted with a Scalable Open Architecture Reconnaissance (SOAR) pod under its right wing and a Rosetta Echo Advanced Payload (REAP) under its left wing, both of which are also GA-ASI products. SOAR is a signals intelligence suite that “provides identification, geolocation and characterization of RF Signals of Interest (SOI) for the formation of Electronic Order of Battle,” according to General Atomics’ website. REAP is a communications and data-sharing system.

REAP underscores another potential future role for the MQ-9, as a communications and datalink gateway node. GA-ASI says that this pod “provides the foundation for an Open Mission Systems (OMS) capable communications gateway (ABMS building block).” An open-architecture system is one designed to be readily adaptable and upgradeable to give existing systems additional functionality and enable all-new capabilities. ABMS is the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System program, which is a broad initiative exploring a wide array of new technology to improve networking and associated capabilities, with a heavy emphasis on leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The REAP pod is also notably one of three pods that the Air National Guard is now exploring as part of a large upgrade package, referred to as Ghost Reaper, for its MQ-9s. General Atomics first unveiled the Ghost Reaper concept in 2020. A Reaper from the 174th Attack Wing, an element of the New York Air National Guard, flew with a set of Ghost Reaper pods during the recent iteration of the annual Northern Edge exercise in Alaska. 

The other two pods that are part of this configuration are a Centerline Avionics Bay Pod, which provides an expansion area where various additional systems can be installed, and Northrop Grumman’s Freedom Pod. The Freedom Pod contains the advanced Freedom 550 software-defined radio, which, depending on its exact configuration, has the power to translate between a wide array of different and otherwise incompatible waveforms, as well as sport an infrared search and track (IRST) system. 

Between REAP and the Freedom 550, the Ghost Reaper concept could turn the MQ-9 into a powerful data-fusion node, able to collect information from various sources, including its own onboard sensors and ISR data collected by drones it has launched, and then help push it out to other aircraft, as well as friendly forces down below. The Air Force has said specifically that these pods will allow Reapers “to receive and pass information to and from older fourth generation and newer fifth-generation aircraft,” a major area of interest for the service for years now.

“REAP bridged surveillance imagery video from a Coyote unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to ground command-and-control assets,” according to a story from Aviation Week last September. “Follow-on versions of REAP include Link 16 integration, providing low-latency tactical data link information to military personnel in the air and on the ground. This new capability would allow the Joint Terminal Attack Controller to designate an attack aircraft to hit a target.”

Raytheon’s Coyote family of small drones is another design that is increasingly popular within the U.S. military, as a whole. Coyote variants have been employed in a number of research and development efforts regarding swarming technology over the years, especially within the U.S. Navy, and the Block 3 design is now being employed in a new round of work in this vein, which you can read more about here

On top of all that, the Freedom Pod’s IRST would offer a way to passively watch for aerial threats, either to the drone itself or an other assets it might working with, even stealthy aircraft or missiles, and in environments where there is significant electronic jamming. 

All of this comes as the future of the MQ-9, in particular, is increasingly uncertain. Last year, the Air Force announced, unexpectedly, its desire to stop buying any additional Reapers, citing how vulnerable they would be in a higher-end conflict. The service then initiated a replacement program for these drones, known as MQ-Next, which you read more about here

Congress blocked those plans by inserting funding for additional Reapers in a defense spending bill that became law in January despite a veto from then-President Donald Trump. However, the Air Force continues to make clear that it is working to move beyond the MQ-9.

General Atomics is also now pitching the MQ-9 as an alternative option to SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch effort. The Armed Overwatch program is looking to acquire an armed manned aircraft of some kind to replace Air Force Special Operations Command’s U-28A Draco fleet. SOCOM envisions the Armed Overwatch aircraft operating primarily in more permissive environments in support of lower-end conflicts.

Of course, any future replacement for the Air Force’s MQ-9s, as well as the Army’s MQ-1Cs, is likely still years away from entering widespread service, meaning that Reapers and Gray Eagles could very much benefit from upgrades and add-on capabilities that could make them more relevant in higher-end conflicts in the near term. General Atomics says that it hopes that the smaller air-launched UAS it revealed this week at SOFIC will fly for the first time in 2022.

Brinkley, GA-ASI’s Director of Strategic Communications & Marketing, stressed that the development of many of these new capabilities, including work on Sparrowhawk and the launching of ALEs from Army Gray Eagles, has already progressed to a significant degree. “We’re not talking about some distant future here. It’s not ‘Star Trek.'” he said.

As such, other existing and future operators of the Reaper, or other variants and derivatives of that design, could also be interested in these new capabilities for their drones. This operator base is now notably growing thanks to changes last year in the U.S. government’s restrictions on exporting unmanned aircraft.

All told, the coming evolution of the capabilities of both the MQ-9 and MQ-1C within the U.S. military, especially their increasing ability to launch smaller unmanned aircraft, potentially in networked swarms, looks set to be full of exciting new developments in the coming years, if not months.

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