Northrop Grumman and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) have used the 2020 US Air Force Association conference to reveal their concepts about what a possible MQ-9A Reaper successor might look like.
Dubbed ‘MQ-Next’, the program is seeking to replace the GA-ASI MQ-9A Reaper in USAF service with a high performance air vehicle with higher degrees of autonomy and a reduced signature that would allow it to operate in a contested air environment.
The USAF issued a Request for Information (RFI) for MQ-Next in June 2020. The RFI said, “with the MQ-9 platform planning for end of service life, a need to identify a solution that continues to provide for this demand is imperative. The purpose of this RFI is to research potential solutions for the Next Generation UAS ISR/Strike platform, the Next Generation Medium Altitude UAS and potential follow-on program to the MQ-9 weapon system.”
On September 14, industry magazine Aviation Week broke the story about Northrop Grumman’s offering for MQ-Next, the SG-102. It says the new air vehicle is part of a family of systems the company has proposed to the USAF to be able to conduct a variety of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and strike missions.
The following day at the annual US Air Force Association (AFA) conference, GA-ASI revealed it had also responded to the RFI with its own MQ-Next solution. “The UAV will have a flying wing design,” company President David Alexander was quoted as saying. “We’re embracing ‘ultra-long endurance’ to keep our next-generation ISR [UAV] in the fight for longer periods than many ever imagined possible. The proposed aircraft will have the ability to stay engaged in the fight far longer than current-generation [UAVs].”
Tactical ISR and close-air-support CAS missions are currently primarily performed by the MQ-9 and, in some areas, the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel of which there are thought to be less than 20 in service. While the Reaper can employ AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and GBU-12/38/54 series of 500lb laser and/or GPS-guided bombs, it is believed the RQ-170 is unarmed.
The turbine-powered MQ-9 was developed from the smaller R/MQ-1 Predator which was initially an ISR-only platform, before being integrated with a pair of Hellfire missiles on two wing hardpoints for CIA missions. The larger MQ-9 has a larger sensor payload, and can carry up to 2,000lbs of weapons on six hardpoints. But the Reaper is slow and does not have any obvious signature management, and is not considered survivable in a contested environment.
The stealthy tailless RQ-170 was revealed when photographed at Kandahar in 2009, and it is reported to have performed the role of a communications node during the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. The low-observable RQ-170 has shaping, embedded sensors, and an embedded intake and engine configuration which allows it to operate in contested airspace. But following the 2011 crash of an RQ-170 in Iran, that design has likely been compromised, and Iran has even shown propaganda footage of similar air vehicles it claims to have reverse-engineered from the RQ-170’s wreckage.
The mission for the MQ-Next has evolved from that of tactical ISR and CAS provided by the MQ-1/9 family. Where once it was focussed on a tactical ISR, CAS, and counter-improvised explosive device (IED) mission, the future will be one that includes countering mobile missile launchers and other mobile threats.
The USAF actually had started planning for a Reaper successor in 2010 with the MQ-X program, before cancelling that effort in 2012. Despite the short life of the MQ-X effort, GA-ASI developed and flew its jet-powered Avenger or Predator-C, and it has been reported that a small number of these aircraft were operated by the USAF or another US government agency using the MQ-11 designation.
The SG-102 leverages much of what Northrop Grumman gained through its X-47B unmanned combat aerial system (UCAS) developed for the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) J-UCAS research program and the US Navy’s UCAS-D development program.
When the US Navy cancelled UCAS-D, the X-47B’s test program was extended through the follow-on Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program which in turn evolved into the Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System (CBARS) program. Northrop Grumman elected not to bid for CBARS because the X-47B was more optimised for the strike mission, and Boeing went on to win CBARS with its MQ-25.
Concept art released by NG shows a distinct physical resemblance between the two systems although, at about 20,000lbs, the smaller SG-102 is about one-half the weight of the X-47B and has about one-third the range.
Over at GA-ASI, rather than evolving its design from previous Predator family members, concept art of its MQ-Next offering shows an air vehicle with a highly swept flying wing and deeply embedded air intakes, quite unlike the Reaper, Avenger, or anything else the company has ever shown before.
The MQ-Next will likely be operated as an element of a highly integrated force comprising large ISR aircraft, fighters, satellites, and ground and maritime forces, and will also likely include a high degree of artificial intelligence designed to prioritise targets and threats, and to offer targeting, attack, or defensive solutions to decision makers.
Northrop Grumman’s solution for command and control of the SG-102 is its in-house developed Distributed Autonomy, Responsive Control (DA/RC) system. DA/RC is described as an advanced battlement management command and control system that allows unmanned systems to work together across contested environments with varying degrees of independence, but with provision for commanders to be able to intervene as needed. DA/RC enables autonomous force-level task allocation and air vehicle-level task execution in high-threat, communications-challenged operational domains.
Northrop Grumman has declared that the SG-102 (and a larger SG-101) air vehicle concepts, possess the essential combination of high survivability, long range, more than 24 hour mission endurance, mission systems and weapons carriage capacity, and open mission systems architectures.
The SG-102 design continues Northrop Grumman’s legacy of low-observable flying wing designs which can be traced back to Jack Northrop’s YB-35 and YB-49 bomber designs of the 1940s, the B-2A Spirit, the X-47A Pegasus and X-47B, the rumoured RQ-180 strategic ISR platform, and the USAF’s new B-21 Raider bomber.