Air Force Begins Search for Next Hunter-Killer Drone

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Airmen check over the first MQ-9 Reaper to be transported through ferry flight on Holloman AFB.
Airmen from the 29th Aircraft Maintenance Unit check over the first MQ-9 Reaper to be transported through ferry flight here, Jan. 8, 2020, on Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Autumn Vogt)

The U.S. Air Force is asking companies to submit ideas for a next-generation hunter-killer drone to replace the MQ-9 Reaper. It's seeking a drone that may incorporate artificial intelligence and could be inexpensive enough to be considered expendable.

In a request for information solicitation posted on the government's acquisition and awards website, the service said it will begin accepting ideas for the "Next Generation UAS ISR/Strike Platform," an improved unmanned aerial system that has both intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and strike capabilities.

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Companies should offer autonomy, AI, "machine learning, digital engineering, open mission systems (OMS) and attritable technology," among other attributes, according to the RFI, posted June 3.

Open mission systems are designed to be modular and easily upgraded over the system's lifetime. Digital engineering allows developers to simulate parts through computer models before development.

The service is looking for a cost-effective drone, possibly cheap enough to be considered "attritable," or expendable.

Air Force Materiel Command, which is leading the search, said developers "are encouraged to consider [or] assume the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Skyborg program as the primary UAS autonomous baseline solution" for the next-gen strike drone.

Parallel to the Air Force's proposed Loyal Wingman program -- which aims to send out drones ahead of fighters to act as scouts -- the AFRL has been developing the "Skyborg" program, seeking to pair AI with a human piloting a fighter jet. The Air Force launched an official solicitation for Skyborg last month.

While the service is expected to lay out details for its MQ-9 replacement plan in its fiscal 2022 budget, the first delivery for a Reaper follow-on is expected in fiscal 2030, with a projected initial operational capability sometime in 2031, the solicitation states.

The Air Force revealed through its fiscal 2021 budget submission that it plans to buy its final 24 Reapers this year, cutting the total buy to 337 aircraft from the planned 363, Air Force Magazine reported in February.

Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, told lawmakers in March that, while the MQ-9 has taken on robust operations -- encompassing both ISR and strike -- for more than a decade, it simply isn't suited to the high-end fight for which the service is preparing.

"The Reaper has been a great platform for us," Roper said before the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces. "[But] there are things that are more high-end military unique, things that are meant to be able to survive even in a contested environment. A lot of technology will have to go [into that], and there will likely be expensive systems, but we also see a lot of opportunity to bring in commercial technology, push the price point down, have systems that ... we can take more loss with."

In 2017, commanders expanded the mission set of the larger, faster MQ-9 as the Air Force began phasing out its unmanned cousin, the MQ-1 Predator. That year, the MQ-9 bagged its first air-to-air kill of another small, aerial vehicle in a controlled test, showing it had the ability to conduct air-to-air combat. The MQ-1 officially retired in 2018.

But on June 6, 2019, U.S. Central Command confirmed that a Reaper had been shot down by Iran-backed rebel Houthis, with Iranian assistance. Another U.S. MQ-9 was shot down over Yemen by Houthi fighters that August, according to unnamed U.S. defense officials who spoke to Reuters.

"As we look to the high-end fight, we just can't take [MQ-9s] into the battlefield," Roper said. "They are easily shot down, and so what we are preparing to do on the acquisition side as we take down the production line is build the next generation of systems."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: The Air Force Is Looking for a Successor to its MQ-9 Reaper Drone

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