03/08/2021

USAF Outlines MQ-9 Upgrades

USAF Not Looking at ‘MQ-Next’ as a Direct MQ-9 Replacement, Outlines Reaper Upgrades – Link

Source: Air Force Magazine

Article Headlines
  • The Air Force is starting to field enhanced capabilities for the MQ-9 fleet that will better prepare it to operate in more denied environments.
  • AFLCMC has laid out its timeline for an overall suite of updates for the MQ-9, called the “MQ-9 multi-domain operations,” or M2DO configuration, which includes improved communications, increased power, autonomous takeoff and landing, and eventually increased use of artificial intelligence to make the Reaper more relevant in a high-end fight.
  • First, M2DO is focused on improving the MQ-9’s ability to communicate. This includes bringing on the Link 16 datalink and improving its command and control “resiliency” through the use of different waveforms and an improved modem both within the aircraft and with the ground systems. Additionally, AFLCMC is looking to bring on open mission systems, including the Stellar Relay computer system, as the first internet protocol “backbone” for the aircraft, with interfaces at each pylon “enabling a really plug-on-and-play sort of aspect”.
  • The Air Force is also looking to double the amount of power the MQ-9 can distribute so it can bring on “an enhanced suite of mission capabilities” and have the ability for high-power computing. This “opens up the ability of the MQ-9 to be a host for significantly advanced artificial intelligence algorithms and autonomy algorithms,” he said.
  • AFLCMC is working with the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center to support its development of a “smart sensor,” with demonstration expected in exercises over the next year that will serve as “both a cornerstone for the department’s development of a suite of autonomy algorithms, but then also looking at how does an MQ-9 as a surrogate vehicle help inform the future development of AI and the integration of that AI into the overall fight”.
  • The Air Force is already bringing on anti-jamming GPS capability, with retrofits underway.
  • “So that suite of M2DO configurations really is what the Air Force is depending upon to ensure that the MQ-9 remains relevant in its expanding role through the 2030-35 timeframe”.
  • The Air Force is planning on installing the M2DO configuration on 71 aircraft, but that is a “dial” that will be adjusted depending on budget constraints.
  • Below is a schedule for upcoming MQ-9 enhancements:
    • Anti-jam GPS:Fielding underway
    • Enhanced power:Fielding to begin in the first quarter of fiscal 2023
    • Command and control elements: 2023
    • Link 16: The first quarter of 2024
    • Stellar Relay: The third quarter of 2024.
    • Automatic takeoff and landing for the MQ-9 fleet is also in a continuous development effort over the next several years.
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