Video Above:64. Navy Connects Air, Surface, Underseas Drones
The Air Force is exploring so many interesting options when it comes to finding and deploying a replacement for its MQ-9 Reaper drone, that it is planning to take its time.
The service is running an interesting program called “MQ-Next” which is now 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. They may quite likely be smaller, stealthier, more lethal and even operate in swarms to blanked areas with surveillance with a smaller footprint to improve survivability.
As it 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, meaning 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 300 platforms (Reapers) to go into the middle 2030s, so we have time to proceed smartly and look at different systems,” Lt. Gen. David Nahom, 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, Nahom said, was the ongoing focus on networking, meaning manned-unmanned teaming, multi-platform drone connectivity and even unmanned-unmanned or “drone-to-drone” kinds of synergies.
Certainly networking advances enabling low-latency kinds of data exchange between aircraft and drones allow for a circumstance wherein the Air Force could possible field a number of smaller and therefore more survivable drones able to exchange 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 with ISR, test enemy air defenses and even attack the perimeter of enemy forces without placing pilots and manned aircraft at risk of incoming attack.
“There are a lot of ways we can use unmanned systems in much different ways than in the past. We can have unmanned adversary air and platforms tasked with protecting high-value systems,” Nahom explained.
Much of this kind of RDT&E, innovation and technological exploration is made possible by the continued success and functionality of the Reaper drone itself, a war-hardened platform which has been massively upgraded by the Air Force. Unlike its earliest days, the Reaper of today operates with additional mission extending fuel tanks, a universal weapons interface enabling a wider arsenal of attack weapons, AI-enabled data processing, software upgrades and sensor enhancements. The Air Force has also been adjusting Reaper tactics such as varying flight path to be less predictable to enemies and flying at higher altitudes made possible by substantial improvements in the range and fidelity of its sensors. When it comes to the Air Force goal of providing survivable, persistent ISR, the Reaper has been answering the call.
“We have time to look at all of these possibilities before the MQ-9s fall off,” Nahom told Mitchell.
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