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General Atomics, the firm perhaps best known for its iconic Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, unveiled a new drone at the Air Force Association’s annual conference, held virtually this year due to the ongoing global pandemic. The artist’s illustration they showcased seems to have some pretty unique features.
The drone would be used in an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and in a strike role. Although specifics about the unique-looking drone are unknown, it is clear from the artist’s rendering that the UAV would have a very long endurance.
In addition to the very thin wings and somewhat B-2 Spirit-esque nose and body, the UAV has very unique air intakes. Rather than the traditionally rounded air intakes, this UAV’s intakes are narrow and slit-like. There could be a connection between the drone’s odd air intakes and the propulsion system that allow the drone to have a very high loiter time.
In a statement given to the aviation website Aviation Week, General Atomics VP of engineering David Alexander said the company is “embracing ultra-long endurance to keep our next-generation ISR/Strike UAS in the fight for longer periods than many ever imagined possible,” supporting the theory of long loiter time. “Our advancements in propulsion technology will give commanders a longer reach than ever before,” Alexander emphasized.
The company apparently envisions the new UAV as a replacement for the MQ-9 Reaper drone, which first flew nearly twenty years ago. Though the Reaper proved its worth to the United States overseas, it has gotten somewhat long in the tooth.
General Atomics’ new stealthy-looking drone art wouldn’t be the first stealthy drone in service with the United States. Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray, a carrier-based aerial refueling drone, is still in development, but won the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program—of which General Atomics was also a competitor.
The Boeing Stingray’s fuselage has some stealthy contouring, though the design is likely not as stealthy as GA’s latest proposal due in part to its more traditional V-tail design. General Atomics’ flying wing design would presumably have a much more reduced radar cross-section.
Leveraging the extensive experience gained via previous drone data, and from their failed Navy carrier bid, General Atomics’ latest drone concept would likely be an attractive option for the Navy, and perhaps the Navy’s stealthiest option.
As of now, General Atomics has not released any details or specifications related to their new drone design—but make no mistake, in the future, the United States’ drones will be much stealthier than their predecessors.
-- This story first appeared in The National Interest --
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.