|MQ-9 Reaper, with Hellfire missiles and guided 500lb bombs|
At this point, UCAV's are not the answer for everything, however. They have been limited to small payloads of small 500lb bombs and short range Hellfire missiles. The preeminent UCAV in the US arsenal, the MQ-9 Reaper (aka. the Predator B) is rather slow with a top speed of just over 500km/h and a cruising speed of slightly over 300km/h. This fits the Reaper's flight profile just fine, however, allowing it to patrol an area slowly, looking for insurgents.
Unable to defend itself against enemy missile fire, the Reaper is only useful over airspace that is well under allied control. This has made it useful over the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as more controversial operations over countries like Pakistan.
|General Atomics Predator C Avenger.|
Unsurprisingly, General Atomics, the manufacturer behind the Predator and Reaper UAVs, has gone a step further and is now marketing a UCAV with decidedly more punch; the Predator C "Avenger".
Larger, faster, and more stealthy than its predecessors; the Avenger does away with the Reaper's turboprop in favour of a more powerful turbofan. The exterior skin has been reshaped for a lower radar cross section. The addition of a reconfigurable weapons bay allows it to store bombs, missiles, or surveillance gear I internally, maintaining a stealthy profile. Able to carry 3,000lbs of ordinance, up to and including a 2,000lb "bunker buster" JDAM, the Avenger can almost duplicate the F-35's 4,000lb internal bomb load.
Best of all, the Avenger promises to be affordable. It uses many of the same battle tested systems used in the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. At a projected unit cost of $15 million, the Avenger promises to be much cheaper than Global Hawk, yet offers much of the capability. When equipped with the requisite sensors, the Avenger is billed as matching "85%" of the Global Hawk's capability with its 20 hour flight endurance and 60,000ft flight ceiling.
It is against the F-35 where the Avenger really shows its value. Able to carry the same munitions on the same missions, 5 Avengers could be used for a single F-35. Combine this with General Atomic's marketing claim of "Attrition Tolerance", and it really does seem foolish to send in an expensive, manned stealth aircraft when an much cheaper, unmanned stealth aircraft could do the job. The F-35 can perform the role of an air-superiority fighter, but its primary role is that of a strike aircraft. It's stealth is far a proven asset in aerial combat, and other aircraft are faster and more agile.
As far as being "future proof", General Atomics is planning on implementing its HELLADS laser weapon. There is also talk of an electronic warfare version as an alternative to the EA-18G Growler and EA-6B Prowler.
Able of performing many of the same missions as both the Global Hawk and the F-35, for a much cheaper cost, the Avenger promises to be one of those "no-brainer" procurements, if all goes according to plan. It will certainly not be a do everything platform, however. It will not be capable of air-superiority, that is still the realm of manned fighters for the foreseeable future. Certain surveillance missions, like Anti-Submarine Warfare, will still require manned aircraft, so specialized aircraft like the CP-140 Aurora will still be needed. A UCAV like the Avenger will allow these manned aircraft to perform more effectively however, taking some of the pressure off by handling the most dangerous strike assignments and longest patrols.
If the cost of both the Avenger and the Gripen E/F turn out to be as affordable as their respective manufacturers claim, Canada could afford to procure a Gripen E multirole fighter and an Avenger UCAV for the cost of a single F-35 at it's current estimated cost.
"Attrition Tolerance", stealth, affordability, versatility, and freakin' lasers! What's not to like?