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US Air Force proceeding with major upgrade for MQ-9 fleet

MQ-9 Reaper
US Air Force file photo of an MQ-9 Reaper with four GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition under its wings

The US Air Force has signed off on several upgrades for its new MQ-9 unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that will increase their effectiveness against near-peer adversary threats.

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center plans to award the first delivery order of the planned MQ-9 Multi-Domain Operation (M2DO) aircraft to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) in April 2021.

The service said it would also retrofit a portion of the already fielded MQ-9 fleet to the same M2DO configuration.

M2DO will introduce improved anti-jamming capability, an upgraded electro-optical/infra-red sensor and the ability to carry new types of weapons.

“Working with Air Combat Command and other stakeholders, the MQ-9 enterprise will add new capabilities to the platform to help ensure the MQ-9 is able to support these missions in the threat environment we envision,” said Lt. Col. Nick Jordan, Materiel Leader for MQ-9 Production and Retrofit. “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 (C-VEO) combat operations over the next ten to fifteen years. It can remain relevant with these added and upgraded technologies.”

The MQ-9 Program Office is already completing initial fleet retrofits that will mitigate potential jamming to the platform. This is the first retrofit of many, as MQ-9 M2DO configured aircraft will receive additional closely-held capabilities that will enable Command and Control mission assurance and resiliency while the aircraft is airborne.

Additionally, the MQ-9 team will increase the electronic power for the platform. This increase, coupled with concurrent development efforts to create an open architecture design for the platform, will allow the Air Force to rapidly integrate new capabilities in response to emerging threats identified by Combatant Commanders.

The air force projects that with these smart investments that the MQ-9 will remain operationally viable for world-wide operations through the end of the platforms projected service life of 2035. The air force noted it would continue to evaluate options to find a more viable solution in the future.

The MQ-9 Reaper is an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude RPAS that can perform strike, coordination, and reconnaissance against high-value and time-sensitive targets. With the MQ-9 upgrade program, the air force plans to facilitate the fielding of modernized hardware/software capabilities on a 6-12 month schedule.