In their quest to “unman the front the lines”, and maintain drone superiority over other states, the US armed forces have been working on a series of designs that will one day replace their air fleet of Raptors and Predators. Given that potential rivals, like Iran and China, are actively imitating aspects of these designs in an added incentive, forcing military planners to think bigger and bolder.
Consider the MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), a jet-powered drone that is the size of a Boeing 757 passenger jet. Developed by Northrop Grumman and measuring some 40 meters (130 feet) from wingtip to wingtip, this “super drone” is intended to replace the US Navy’s fleet of RQ-4 Global Hawks, a series of unmanned aerial vehicles that have been in service since the late 90’s.
Thanks to a sensor suite that supplies a 360-degree view at a radius of over 3700 kms (2,300 miles), the Triton can provide high-altitude, real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) at heights and distances in excess of any of its competitors. In addition, the drone possess unique de-icing and lightning protection capabilities, allowing to plunge through the clouds to get a closer view at surface ships.
And although Triton has a higher degree of autonomy than the most autonomous drones, operators on the ground are still relied upon to obtain high-resolution imagery, use radar for target detection and provide information-sharing capabilities to other military units. Thus far, Triton has completed flights up to 9.4 hours at altitudes of 15,250 meters (50,000 feet) at the company’s manufacturing facility in Palmdale, California.
During surveillance missions using Triton, Navy operators may spot a target of interest and order the aircraft to a lower altitude to make positive identification. The wing’s strength allows the aircraft to safely descend, sometimes through weather patterns, to complete this maneuver.
Under an initial contract of $1.16 billion in 2008, the Navy has ordered 68 of the MQ-4C Triton drones with expected delivery in 2017. Check out the video of the Triton during its most recent test flight below:
But of course, this jetliner-sized customer is just one of many enhancements the US armed forces is planning on making to its drone army. Another is the jet-powered, long-range attack drone that is a planned replacement for the aging MQ-1 Predator system. It’s known as the Avenger (alternately the MQ-1 Predator C), a next-generation unmanned aerial vehicle that has a range of close to 3000 kms (1800 miles).
Designed by General Atomics, the Avenger is designed with Afghanistan in mind; or rather, the planned US withdrawal by the end 0f 2014. Given the ongoing CIA anti-terrorism operations in neighboring Pakistan are expected to continue, and airstrips in Afghanistan will no longer be available, the drones they use will need to have significant range.
The Avenger prototype made its first test flight in 2009, and after a new round of tests completed last month, is now operationally ready. Based on the company’s more well-known MQ-9 Reaper drone, Avenger is designed to perform high-speed, long-endurance surveillance or strike missions, flying up to 800 kms (500 mph) at a maximum of 15,250 meters (50,000 feet) for as long as 18 hours.
Compared to its earlier prototype, the Avenger’s fuselage has been increased by four feet to accommodate larger payloads and more fuel, allowing for extended missions. It can carry up to 1000 kilograms (3,500 pounds) internally, and its wingspan is capable of carrying weapons as large as a 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and a full-compliment of Hellfire missiles.
Switching from propeller-driven drones to jets will allow the CIA to continue its Pakistan strikes from a more distant base if the U.S. is forced to withdraw entirely from neighboring Afghanistan. And according to a recent Los Angeles Times report, the Obama administration is actively making contingency plans to maintain surveillance and attacks in northwest Pakistan as part of its security agreement with Afghanistan.
The opportunity to close the gap between the need to act quickly and operating from a further distance with technology isn’t lost on the US military, or the company behind the Avenger. Frank Pace, president of the Aircraft Systems Group at General Atomics, said in a recent statement:
Avenger provides the right capabilities for the right cost at the right time and is operationally ready today. This aircraft offers unique advantages in terms of performance, cost, timescale, and adaptability that are unmatched by any other UAS in its class.
What’s more, one can tell by simply looking at the streamlined fuselage and softer contours that stealth is part of the package. By reducing the drone’s radar cross-section (RCS) and applying radar-absorbing materials, next-generation drone fleets will also be mimicking fifth-generation fighter craft. Perhaps we can expect aerial duels between remotely-controlled fighters to follow not long after…
And of course, there’s the General Atomic’s Avenger concept video to enjoy: