Air Force Looks to Upgrade Reaper Unmanned Aircraft.

Author:Magnuson, Stew

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of when the Defense Department ordered the Army to hand over an advanced concept technology demonstration aircraft it called the MQ-1 Predator to the Air Force.

As an experimental aircraft thrown into combat at the outset of the war in Afghanistan, the unmanned aerial vehicle was far from a refined piece of military hardware.

The UAV had flown over Serbia to conduct surveillance in 1999, and by the time U.S. forces arrived in Central Asia to fight al-Qaida, it was firing its first Hellfire missiles.

While the Predator--and its follow-on version better known as the MQ-9 Reaper--emerged as one of the most high profile and controversial new technologies employed in the so-called global war on terror, for Air Combat Command Commander Gen. Mike Holmes it serves as a cautionary tale of when a program is created ad hoc.

Since then, new capabilities have been added in "fits and starts," he said. Squadrons have not been built out to the point where personnel can have dwell time and aircraft can be pulled out of service for routine upgrades.

"We are left with an unsustainable enterprise that has been kind of shoe-boxed into a limited mission set. There were a lot of requirements in the joint force that we weren't meeting," Holmes said at a panel at the Air Force Association's recent Air, Space and Cyber Conference.

Reaper upgrades came in the form of joint urgent action requests "without always having all the documents," he noted.

Meanwhile, the aircraft that was unexpectedly thrust into a key role in modern battlefields has been a major success for its Southern California-based manufacturer, General Atomics Aeronautical. Italy, Australia, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Spain--and soon India--are among the nations flying the aircraft along with U.S. agencies such as NASA and Customs and Border Protection.

The company is spending a significant amount of internal research-and-development dollars to provide upgrades that will make operations less expensive and more efficient, said Darren Moe, General Atomics' senior director of automation and UX mission systems.

The company began a project to introduce disruptive technologies associated with automation to both make the aircraft more affordable and more effective. That includes all aspects from flight, at the ground stations and in the ways intelligence officers request data, Moe said.

The first technology developed under the initiative was XC2...

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