The United States Air Force (USAF) has announced plans to update its Reaper drones in a way that makes them more capable against ‘near-peer’ threats. The plan comes from the USAF’s Life Cycle Management Center, specifically its MQ-9 Program Office, which explains that the mission behind the drone platform is ‘shifting’ from one aimed at addressing extremist groups to one that may need to address near-peer threats.
The MQ-9 ‘Reaper’ is a fixed-wing AI-powered drone that was designed to deal with what the USAF calls Counter-Violent Extremist Organization (C-VEO) combat situations. However, things are changing and the Air Force sees a different growing need for its unmanned drone fleet, one that revolves not around extremists but rather ‘near-peer’ threats.
Some of the existing MQ-9 Reaper drones will be retrofitted with a Multi-Domain Operation (M2DO) configuration, the same that will be used for new Reaper aircraft covered by a delivery order from the USAF to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.
The M2DO retrofit configuration effort is already underway with additional work planned. Among other things, the USAF plans to boost the drone platform’s electronic power and to develop an open architecture design for the Reaper. With these things in place, the USAF notes that it will be able to rapidly add new features to the drones, ones intended to deal with new threats as they arrive.
In a statement about the plan, USAF Lt. Col. Nick Jordan, the material leader for the MQ-9 production and retrofit effort, said:
Working with Air Combat Command and other stakeholders, the MQ-9 enterprise will add new capabilities to the platform to help ensure the MQ-9 is able to support these missions in the threat environment we envision. The user has directed us to add technology into the platform which signals that the MQ-9 can offer more capability than just C-VEO operations over the next ten to fifteen years. It can remain relevant with these added and upgraded technologies.