Combatant Commanders Want Tougher Drones

An MQ-9 Reaper drone

While the U.S. Air Force’s unclassified effort to field a next generation UAV, dubbed MQ-X, has been on hold for nearly a year now, the service’s top requirements officer weighed in this morning on what he thinks the plane should be capable of.

“We need to look at bridging from the permissive environment” today’s drones like the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper fly in over places like Afghanistan and “contested airspace” where something like a Reaper would make easy prey, Lt. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the Air Force’s chief of operations, plans and requirements for the U.S. Air Force said during a breakfast with reporters here in DC. “We need a capability in that area and I think MQ-X is a good place to have that conversation.”

In fact, combatant commanders around the world are already starting to ask for something more survivable that our existing drones, according to Breedlove.

From his perspective, the plane wouldn’t necessarily be high-end stealth, but it would be more survivable than the current crop of propeller-driven UAVs prowling the skies of the Middle East.

The Air Force is already working on capabilities that can go into extremely heavily defended regions, but needs something  that can handle less heavily-defended but still dangerous airspace, according to Breedlove.

While he didn’t elaborate on what he meant by more survivable, I’ve heard senior Air Force officials talk about the need to make next-gen UAVs such as MQ-X faster, more maneuverable and equipped with countermeasures or maybe air-to-air weapons.

Sadly, the general did not give a timeline for when he thought the service will have hashed out what it wants the drone to look like.

This makes me wonder, what about all those next-generation Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles being designed?

The Navy is already looking to capitalize on that type of design for its Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike UAV which it hopes to have in limited service by the end of this decade. Is such a plane too expensive for MQ-X style missions?

Also, I’m curious, what category of survivability does the stealthy-looking RQ-170 actually fall under?

— John Reed

  • Anthony

    Add a jet engine, increase payload speed and range…keep most everything the same as the current predator/reaper, except for a redesigned wing surface to take advantage of the new engine. nope that’d be too simple…

  • Nick

    Just make them cost less than a SAM and no matter what you’ll come out ahead. At that price, even vs. an F-22 getting a 100:1 Kill:Loss ratio it’ll still be a “win” for the drones. This is the future of air warfare and the leap ahead technology our adversaries will be pursuing to destroy our billion dollar, gold plated, flying toys.

  • tribulationtime

    From my pointview, they want more flexibility on fly-plan to avoid a “tunnel” in the air so much time prohibited fly zone for others. Need “get-in get-out” faster without made a traffic jam because the drone spend too much time in the target vecinity, means target distance and altitude variations. So more power, and harder structural features, aerodinamics tune up and guess better command stuff. I scrap any stealth improvement. RQ-170 stealthy-looking can be that looking, fly-wing class aircrafts have own advantages.

    • nraddin

      Truly autonomous drones using messed networks and hive thinking and/or individual awareness don’t need to wait for deconfliction of airspace any more than you need deconfliction between your four limps. The science and testing for this kind of ‘work together’ systems was developed years ago and is now pretty mature, if we where going to use hundreds or thousands of small cheap airframes in a given AO it’s hard to think of a more logistically feasible system. I personally see this as the wave of the future, airframes that cost little more than the warhead they are dropping or are just the weapon themselves (imagine cheap tomahawks that loiter for hours and can RTB if they don’t find a target to be used again), using cheap sensors to but together a unified picture (Google maps or streatview stitched together in real time 3D video), ID and prosecute targets with greater reliability than a human all while requiring almost no interaction from controllers at all.

  • blight

    To be fair, most manned aircraft aren’t too survivable either, asides from specialized CAS-intended aircraft like the A-10 and helicopter gunships.

    • I don’t think they’re talking physical survivability. As you said, any hit bigger then a small burst of autocannon fire is very hit-or-miss for most aircraft. They’re talking countermeasures and defensive jamming.

  • Oblat

    The real problem is that drones are too cheap – there just aren’t the golden goose that manned aircraft are. Hence the need to gold plate them until they can barely get off the ground.

    The next generation of UAVs need to be at least as expensive as the f35, and preferably more expensive. The long development time and extensive software required have all the makings of an R&D bonanza if managed correctly.

    And the biggest plus is that they obsolete the existing fleet. It’s a contractors dream scenario.

    • Belesari

      Do you enjoy trolling? Really i’ve always wondered why they do it.

      Is it a british thing?

      • Greg

        Oblat tells it like it is.

        • Belesari

          No OBLAT trolls. Its obvious. I have yet to hear anything good out of his mouth or really constructive. TROLL.

          • William C.

            Of all of the places to troll, I don’t get why the guy hangs around defense-related websites? Some angry old hippie who hates the military? I don’t know. All he does is criticize whatever the military does and everybody but himself. If the man had any substance at all he would offer his ideas, but I guess he just wants no military or something.

        • Rolo

          Olbat gets it very wrong too, as in “the drones are cheap” line of thinking.

          • blight

            Drones /are/ cheap in that each one does not exceed ten million. A cruise missile is cheaper, but single-use.

            Hopefully GA stays true to the days when they had to sell drones as effective and low cost to an Air Force that didn’t want them in the first place. Don’t get comfortable, you don’t have enough friends in the Pentagon to sell drones that cost more than fighter jets…yet.

    • Oblat

      When you are a paid PR flack from the defense industry the American taxpayer is not a friend.

  • Belesari

    “While he didn’t elaborate on what he meant by more survivable, I’ve heard senior Air Force officials talk about the need to make next-gen UAVs such as MQ-X faster, more maneuverable and equipped with countermeasures or maybe air-to-air weapons.”

    OK not again. Faster maybe but not to fast it also needs a good loiter time and a low stall speed. Manuverable, yes. Air-to-air? No. Counter messures yes. Screw stealth.

    Basically take a A-10 figure out how to make it nearly as survivable. While keeping whats needed. We dont need another damn strike fighter. We need a heavy CAS drone.

  • greg

    Just use the mq-1c avenger.…. Then you can use existing infrastructure and have a better RoI and a lower TCO. No need to completely retrain, and already fits the bill.

    • blight

      Looks badass, but one of those few instances where it doesn’t make big bad Lockmart or Boeing mega-billions.

      • greg

        Lockhead martin makes the optics on the thing. It’s supposed to be the same one that works on the f-35. All the more reason to get this bird.

        • blight

          Electronics isn’t quite the same as being the prime contractor. Funny, the smaller company seems to deliver workable product with over-runs and stalls…

          • Greg

            You won’t get my argument there. When I first saw the avenger I thought we have a winner. Too much common sense though, I loath to say it but it seems like our service aims to fail almost always.

  • nraddin

    survivability is going to have to mean passive or automatic defense systems for the most part. With a 1 second each direction delay between do to the satellite up-link between airframe and controller there is very little hope in a dog fight or trying to dodge SAMs. Two seconds is a long time to lag out in combat. I am sure in the near future automated systems will be able to handle everything the pilot could handle and more with better accuracy but until then I suspect they are talking about lower IR, more speed, more EM stealth, and countermeasure dispensers, lights and lasers.

  • Mart

    What if by “survivability” he meant “less malfunctions”? I read somewhere that we loose a lot of drones due to technical malfunctions as opposed to enemy fire. But then…I dont really know the statistics.

    What they should come up with is a super drone that can dock with a blimp up in the sky or be carried by a blimp to increase its loiter time. Imagine that huh .. a CAS drone attached to blimp so it can follow troops on patrol and upon encountering enemy it can just unattach and swoosh down like a hawk, kill everything in sight and then fly back to the nearest base on its remaining fuel – or even dock with the blimp again. huh? Now that wouldnt that be sweet?

    • chaos0xomega

      The problem is the Blimp is a pretty large target, and one thats not very difficult to neutralize. Unless its one of those new-fangled high-altitude airships, Joe Towelhead will be able to put rounds into one from the ground with his AK.

      • blight

        Assuming our next enemy is Joe Towelhead and not Joe of nation state with surface to air missiles.

        Blimps are overrated anyways, since the buoyancy of the blimp is proportional to altitude and internal volume. The Navy’s L-class blimp was quite large and only carried ~2,000 pounds of usable payload. They are not efficient at carrying bulk payloads. You’re also not invested in a difficult-to-procure-and-resupply item such as pressurized Helium, or it’s dangerous alternative, hydrogen.

    • tiger

      You saw the same Jessica Biel movie I did.

  • Sanem

    does the Air Force really know what it needs?
    they “needed” 700 F-22s to fight off the Soviets
    they “needed” the F-35 to replace all those light fighters: if it wasn’t for the CIA putting rockets on drones, they might still be bombing the Taliban using B-2s
    the UK “needed” two big aircraft carriers, turns out they can’t really afford them, never mind if they’ll ever really need them

    what they “need” is an effective anti-SAM system, like 70 mm guided rockets. shot per shot cheaper than SAMs, they would make drones untouchable until the laser becomes usable

  • LeoC

    Hmmm, we need a stealthy drone (MQ-X) that is able to operate in contested airspace. We can spend mucho $$$ and 10+ years in R&D or we can dust off the plans for the RQ-3 Darkstar. Need flying prototypes to update the avionics? No problem. I know of three airframes collecting dust now in museums. Just a thought if you want to save time and $$$$.

  • Zed

    The advantage of UCAVs are they expendable and persistent. Who cares if hundreds are lost. That means they need to be cheap. 150m per plane doesn’t make sense. Modern air defenses make manned aircraft obsolete. Stealth is obsolete too. That said, the US does need a high altitude unmanned jet powered aircraft. Long range hypersonic cruise missiles might be the way to go, too.

    • William C.

      Stealth is obsolete? Manned aircraft are obsolete? Where do people come up with this ideas? Have you been reading too many brochures for Russian SAM systems?

      What the USAF needs into the future of a mixed force of both aircraft and UCAVs. Your not going to make a combat capable UCAV cheaper than a SAM, however we could develop a target-drone like UAV which could simply exist for people to fire SAMs at. You would need huge numbers of those however.

    • tiger

      What good does a hypersonic cruise missile do for guys in the foxholes? Not much.

      • crackedlenses

        It would eliminate a bunch of the guys trying to kill them, and maybe even convince a few to surrender…..

      • blight

        You could argue what good is air support for the guys in the foxholes? If you have enough cruise missiles on tap and they arrive in a timely fashion, fire support is fire support.

        During Vietnam they used drones to exhaust NVA SAM inventories. I imagine drone saturation in the future could be part of the SEAD mission. And if those drones had anti-radiation capability to attack SAMs as well…

  • MadMike

    Do what the Russians have done in countless ways in the past: Make ’em cheap, but make a lot of ’em. I recall some footage of a drone facing down a fighter sometime back. Anyone recall?

    • jhm

      no point, a modern fighter would easily shoot it down from BVR.

  • asdf

    yes, there was a shootout in the starting days of OIF between an iraqi MIG (29 or a su maybe) and a predator (or similar) drone, armed with stinger. the mig won.