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Combatant Commanders Want Tougher Drones

by John Reed on November 4, 2010

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

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