The U.S. Air Force Was Not Fond of the Next-Gen Predator Drone

Flying branch blew off General Atomics’ Predator C as too modest, too flimsy

In April 2009 General Atomics—the California-based manufacturer of the Predator drone—debuted a new and improved, jet-powered version of the iconic robot warplane.

But for all its improvements, the Predator C—or Avenger—fell flat with its biggest prospective client, the U.S. Air Force. The flying branch’s Air Combat Command recounted the chilly rejection in its official history for 2011, a copy of which War Is Boring obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

The satellite-controlled Avenger is faster, stealthier and carries more weaponry than the earlier, propeller-driven MQ-9 Predator B model, also known by its nickname Reaper.

The Reaper is currently the U.S. Air Force’s main armed drone, but in its standard version it suffers the same inadequacies that plague the original, 1990s-vintage MQ-1 Predator A. It can’t fly in bad weather and its satellite-relayed control signal tends to lag, which can cause crashes when operators sitting in trailers in the U.S. can’t respond fast enough to problems.

It’s also possible to hack the Reaper’s video stream … and jam its GPS.

The Avenger improves on the Reaper in important ways, according to General Atomics. “Its unique design, reduced signature and speed increases its survivability in higher threat environments and provides potential customers with an expanded quick-response armed reconnaissance capability.”

But the Air Force was unimpressed. In late 2011, it bought one Avenger for testing for an estimated $15 million. And by the end of the year, the brass had passed their judgement. The Avenger “offered only minor improvements over the MQ-9,” according to the official history.

Of course, General Atomics would probably beg to differ. The company describes the Avenger as “highly-advanced”—and cites its 400-knot top speed, compared to the Reaper’s 240 knots. General Atomics claims the Avenger can haul 3,500 pounds of weapons, versus the Reaper’s 3,000 pounds.

And the Avenger packs its weapons in an internal bay, undoubtedly making the drone harder to detect on radar than the Reaper, which carries its munitions under its wing, in full view of enemy sensors.

But a slightly faster, more capacious drone with somewhat greater stealth isn’t really what the Air Force wanted. The flying branch’s ideal future drone, which it called the MQ-X, “had to be survivable in a contested environment, weather tolerant and have robust and agile communications,” according to the history.

Presumably, the Avenger inherited the same shortfalls as the Reaper and Predator when it comes to flying in bad weather and communicating swiftly. And reading between the lines in the official history, it’s apparent the Avenger isn’t stealthy or tough enough to represent a worthwhile improvement over the Reaper, from the government’s point of view.

The Air Force desired a “hardened” MQ-X airframe, the history states—an airframe that could “withstand significant battle damage, while the on-board systems detected, avoided and countered both physical anti-air and electronic communications and GPS jamming threats.”

Ideally, the MQ-X would meet all these requirements. The Avenger, however, could not—according to the Air Force.

Above—an Air Force Reaper in Afghanistan. David Axe photo. At top—an Avenger. General Atomics photo

Weirdly, just a few months after rejecting the Avenger, the flying branch also cancelled the MQ-X project, claiming that it could simply upgrade its planned fleet of 300-plus Reapers.

General Atomics is offering three related Reaper upgrades. One adds a new 88-foot-span wing, replacing the existing 66-foot wing. The longer wing boosts lift and improves fuel efficiency. Plus, Reaper users can add two new fuel pods in place of some of the drone’s weapons, each carrying a hundred or so gallons of gas to boost flying time.

“At this point, we don’t see a need, or we don’t plan in the near term to invest in any sort of MQ-X-like program,” Lt. Gen. Larry James, an Air Force recon official, said in early 2012.

Instead, the Air Force said it would consider partnering with the Navy, which is working on a stealthy, carrier-launched jet drone for use after 2018. It’s also possible the flying branch views its secret RQ-170 and RQ-180 stealth drones as de facto replacements for the MQ-X effort.

Ironically, if the Air Force does follow the Navy’s lead and acquires the same new drone that the sailing branch does, the Air Force could wind up with … the Avenger.

General Atomics has modified the basic Predator C airframe to be compatible with aircraft carriers and has entered the resulting Sea Avenger into the Navy’s competition.