USAF to award new MQ-9 Reaper upgrades contract for multidomain operations

By Sara Sirota / April 21, 2021 at 12:22 PM

The Air Force will award General Atomics a contract this month to deliver new MQ-9 Reapers outfitted with advanced technologies for near-peer competition and retrofit part of its existing fleet to the upgraded configuration.

The MQ-9 multidomain operations (M2DO) variant will include a new anti-jamming capability, an enhanced electro-optical/infrared sensor and expanded capacity to carry more types of weapons, according to a press release the Air Force issued today. It will also have increased electronic power and an open architecture design, allowing the service to rapidly integrate new technologies as combatant commanders identify emerging threats.

These upgrades are intended to prepare the Reaper for operations against near-peer adversaries. The Air Force traditionally has used the drone to gather intelligence about terrorist targets and conduct airstrikes in the Middle East and Africa, but the platform recently began supporting new missions in U.S. European Command's area of responsibility.

"The user has directed us to add technology into the platform which signals that the MQ-9 can offer more capability than just [counter-violent extremist organization] operations over the next 10 to 15 years," Lt. Col. Nick Jordan, the Air Force's materiel leader for MQ-9 production and retrofit, said in the release. "It can remain relevant with these added and upgraded technologies."

According to the notice, the Air Force is continuing to evaluate options to replace the Reaper, whose service life will come to an end in 2035. The service issued a request for information last month indicating it was still crafting an acquisition strategy to rapidly develop a new unmanned aircraft and field an initial capability package by 2026.

Today's release does not specify how many new MQ-9s the Air Force will buy under the contract with General Atomics this month. It also does not disclose whether the service intends to use the deal to purchase more aircraft in future fiscal years or hint at its fiscal year 2022 budget plans for the acquisition program.

The Air Force's FY-21 funding proposal sought to cancel the Reaper production line as a result of the platform's vulnerability to attack from sophisticated adversary threats and the service's interest in pursuing a next-generation successor. Although Congress rejected this plan, the Air Force may try again in its FY-22 budget request, which is expected to be released in May or June.