The U.S. wants to send faster versions of the Predator planes to Afghanistan urgently, and it has announced plans to purchase a jet-powered Predator C Avenger for testing in the United States.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems elected to build the Predator C with its own research dollars without waiting for the Air Force to announce final requirements for a proposed Predator successor, called the MQ-X. The company flew the plane for the first time in 2009.
The Predator C is faster than the existing MQ-9 Reaper version of the Predator, with a top speed of 400 knots compared with Reaper’s 240 knots. It also has more sensor capacity and can carry more weapons.
The Avenger can stay in the air up to 20 hours and reach an altitude of more than 53,000 feet, making it capable of wide-area surveillance and strike missions.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas Owen, commander of the service’s Aeronautical Systems Center, approved the procurement, according to a heavily redacted Air Force document posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website. The value of the sole-source contract was redacted, but the Los Angeles Times put the value of the aircraft at $15 million.
“This aircraft will act as the test vehicle to develop those next generation UAS [unmanned aircraft system] sensors, weapons, and Tactics, Techniques & Procedures ensuring a quick, smooth and efficient fielding of these advanced capabilities to the area of operations,” the document says. “Currently, the combatant commanders, with [Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s] concurrence, have determined there are insufficient assets in-theater today to gather the necessary information and to fully engage the present threat.”
The document lauded General Atomics for an “ability and willingness to quickly ramp up production capacity if the Air Force and other customers decide to rapidly field the Predator C UAS.”
Buying General Atomics’ privately funded Predator C Avenger will help the Air Force prepare for current and next-generation threats, the document says.
“This effort is an exceptional circumstance not only due to the need outlined by the SAF/AQ [assistant secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition)] but because it fulfills a multi-agency role by providing a test platform for both Office of Secretary of Defense and customers under an ongoing, classified SECDEF directed program,” the document states.
The aircraft is being procured for an unidentified classified “customer” who needs the jet urgently, according to the document. The Predator C Avenger was the only aircraft that could fill the Defense Department’s needs on such short notice.
This story appeared in the January-February issue of C4ISR Journal.