Aviation Week, Feb 8, 2012, David A. Fulghum
The U.S. Air Force’s plan to acquire a next-generation, stealthy, precision-attack MQ-X unmanned aerial system has a candidate with the first flight of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ extended second variant of its jet-powered Predator C Avenger.
The closely held flight took place Jan. 12 at the company’s Palmdale, Calif., facility. USAF, in its 2025 road map, has stated a preference for a stealth signature (but not very low observability) and long endurance (the latest Avenger can fly for 16 hr.). Predator C offers a serpentine inlet for its Pratt & Whitney engine and a ducted exhaust to shield the aircraft’s heat signature.
General Atomics is building four Avenger Cs. Starting with the second aircraft, the fuselage was extended 4 ft. for additional fuel capacity. A third aircraft is expected to fly this summer followed by the fourth by early next year.
“The Air force wants the MQ-X to operate and survive in a contested or degraded operational environment,” says Chris Pehrson, the company’s director of strategic development.
That means that competitors might substitute electronic attack and electronic warfare for some of the stealth capability. Any design would combine reduced signature, jamming self-protection and long-range surveillance.
“The kind of sensors you put on a platform can allow a greater standoff distance by looking deeper into enemy territory,” the official says. “Avenger is a jet-powered UAV, so it can fly faster and respond more quickly to time-sensitive targets and threats.”
General Atomics is pushing the flight envelope of Avenger beyond 400 kt., to almost twice the speed of the turboprop-powered, workhorse MQ-9 Reaper. It will not be highly maneuverable because it’s not a fighter, nor will it have the speed to keep up with a package of strike aircraft.
“But the speed does allow it to transit to a target area or react to pop-up threats faster,” Pehrson says. “You are looking at a trade space of endurance, altitude, speed and agility. The Avenger has wings like a powered glider so it can operate at about 50,000-55,000 feet. That’s not as high as a U-2, but it will be above most of the traffic.”
Sensors of interest for the Avenger include the Raytheon surveillance ball that is on the Reaper now and multi-spectral sensors like those on the U-2 that can broaden the amount of the electromagnetic spectrum that can be monitored for targeting and reconnaissance.
Various Air Force and Navy officials have indicated that Raytheon’s jamming variant of the Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD-J) is being considered as a standoff electronic attack capability for the Avenger and other aircraft involved in suppressing air defenses.
“We see both suppression and destruction of enemy air defense applications for this platform,” Pehrson says. “It could be equipped with electronic jammers and anti-radiation missiles as one option. Right now, we’re looking at about 3,000 pounds internal payload and about 3,000 pounds on external, wing-mounted hard points.”
Several hundred additional pounds of payload can be carried in the forward electronics bay. In total, it’s about a ton more than the Reaper can carry. To help cut down on the amount of data that has to be transmitted to ground stations, there are plans to do machine processing on board.
“We like to give the operator or analyst the fused, correlated, real-time situational awareness with all the sensors that we possibly can,” Pehrson says. “If you have a ground moving target indicator on the radar, you want to know with high confidence that it’s the same object you are looking at with your electro-optical or infrared sensor. If it’s also giving off a signals signature, that’s all going to be on a single display.”
The Avenger is expected to cost $15-18 million for the baseline aircraft, including sensors.