General Atomics won a nearly $400 million Air Force contract to build 36 MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial systems "in the fiscal 2016 production configuration," the Defense Department announced Tuesday evening.
Work under the firm-fixed-price, sole-source contract is slated to end Aug. 31, 2020. The contract is funded with fiscal year 2016 money, according to DOD.
The Air Force's FY-17 budget documents released in February 2016 show the service planned to buy 33 Reapers in FY-16 and 24 in FY-17. Inside Defense reported last month the Air Force believes the 350 Reapers in its inventory, as programmed in the FY-17 budget, are enough to fulfill its current program of record until follow-on capabilities are fielded.
The service is not planning to buy more MQ-9s after FY-17, the House Appropriations Committee wrote in a May 2016 report accompanying the defense portion of the FY-17 omnibus spending bill. All 350 planned Block 5 MQ-9 deliveries are expected to be complete in FY-21, Inside Defense previously reported.
A General Atomics spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday all of the aircraft under this week's contract will be built in the Block 5 configuration, and the buy is part of the current program of record.
The Air Force said Feb. 23 it would gradually stand up MQ-9 combat lines to replace squadrons of Northrop Grumman's MQ-1 Predators as they retire through the end of the year. Reapers are larger, faster and offer a 4,000-pound payload capacity compared to the Predator's 200-pound payload, with high-definition sensors, among other capabilities.
Air Combat Command will study the MQ-9's service life until FY-19 to determine that aircraft's retirement time line as well, Inside Defense previously reported. The service plans to add more Block 5 Reapers to the fleet until at least 2020 as overworked Block 1 aircraft are retrofitted with Block 5 avionics.
The Air Force had planned to field Block 5 MQ-9s this month, Inside Defense reported earlier this year, and a General Atomics official suggested the service should upgrade its Reapers to a more advanced version of Block 5 instead of retrofitting the fleet as it racks up additional flying hours.
Service spokesmen did not answer a request for comment by press time.