WASHINGTON — The Air Force is looking for a replacement to the stalwart MQ-9 Reaper and intends to explore options ranging from commercial drones built by emerging tech firms to high-end unmanned aircraft, the service’s top acquisition official said Tuesday.

Will Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, said the service is working on a study that will inform the fiscal 2022 budget and lay out a path for replacing the MQ-9 Reaper made by General Atomics.

"The Reaper has been a great platform for us. Four million flight hours, just undeniable overmatch in a low-end uncontested fight, and it is certainly saving lives,” Roper told lawmakers at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. “But as we look to the high end fight, we just can't take them into the battlefield. They are easily shot down.”

The MQ-9 Reaper and its precursor, the MQ-1 Predator, have been the Air Force’s workhorse drones in the Middle East over the past two decades, providing both real-time video surveillance and the ability to strike targets. But looking forward, the Reaper is ill-suited to a war with Russia and China while at the same time seen by the Air Force as requiring too much money and manpower to sustain for continued operations in low-threat environments.

There likely won’t be a single, one-size fits all solution for replacing the MQ-9, Roper said. The Air Force may need drones that “are more high-end, military-unique” systems, and “they’ll likely be expensive,” he acknowledged. There may also be room for unmanned attritable aircraft, which are reusable but are cheap enough that they can be shot down in battle without incurring massive financial losses.

For lower-end missions, the Air Force sees promise in the emerging unmanned systems market, where new entrants have begun creating long-loiter drones for applications in agriculture, communications and the oil and gas sector.

“A lot of companies are targeting that market, not thinking about defense because we’ve been buying Reapers forever,” Roper said, who added that by buying from promising commercial drone makers, Air Force may be able to influence those companies to keep their supply chains out of China and to incorporate military-specific features — potentially even weapons.

“I think if we do the program right on the commercial side, we might be able to bring a new entrant into defense without making them a defense prime,” he said, adding that funding from the Air Force could help a commercial company move from making prototypes to building up a stable production line that could further be grown to manufacture drones on a more massive scale.

“Working with the Defense Department, you don’t need the kind of production capacity that the globe does. So, we’re a pretty good first stop,” he said.

However, the Air Force may face an uphill battle in getting Congress to support a plan to replace the Reaper. The service in its FY21 budget request has asked for 24 more MQ-9s before ending the programs of record — a move that would curtail the program from 363 to 337 Reapers.

The early shutdown of the line would have major financial implications for General Atomics, said Chris Pehrson, the company’s vice president of strategic development, in a February interview with Air Force Magazine.

“We’re actually going out about 22 months ahead of delivery and procuring the long-lead item parts, … whether it’s [satellite communication] equipment or engines … to negotiate the best prices and get the best deals for the government,” Pehrson said. “Having the rug pulled out from under your feet at the last minute kind of disrupts all your supply chain investments that you’re making.”

Top generals in the Middle East and Africa have also raised concerns about the demands for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and privately helped stave off retirements of the MQ-9 by the Air Force in FY21. In its unfunded wish list, U.S. Central Command included additional contractor-flown MQ-9 hours as its number one priority, at a cost of $238 million.