The stealthy, jet-powered Predator-C UAV may be heading for Afghanistan, where it will be operated by “a classified customer,” presumably the CIA. The U.S. Air Force published a procurement notice stating its intention to award a sole-source contract to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) for a single aircraft to serve as “a test platform” in a “multi-agency role” as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. The notice was cancelled five days later, perhaps because of unwanted publicity following the recent loss of a stealthy RQ-170 UAV over Iran. The wording of the notice made clear that the plan to acquire a Predator-C was initiated some months before Iran downed the Lockheed Martin drone.
GA-ASI developed the Predator-C, which is also known as the Avenger, using company funds. Observers interpreted the move as an early bid to meet the emerging Air Force MQ-X requirement for a Predator/Reaper replacement. But the aircraft is also a contender for the U.S. Navy’s unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) requirement. The prototype has been flying routinely since April 2009, said a GA-ASI spokeswoman, who added that the company has not yet received a contract from the U.S. Air Force. A second aircraft will fly within the next two months, with a third and fourth to follow, she said.
The notice explained that the aircraft would help to develop next-generation UAS sensors, weapons and tactics/techniques/procedures for quick fielding. Compared with the MQ-9 Reaper, the Avenger offers a significant increase in cruise speed and payload, including the carriage of 2,000-pound-class smart weapons. It is compatible with the MQ-9 ground control station. Furthermore, GA-ASI is developing “a larger and more capable version” of the Predator-C that is suitable for deployment. Justifying the sole-source award, the notice claimed that “if another platform were selected, the nonrecurring engineering costs would likely exceed $150 million to develop and validate software for a stores management system, integrate the necessary sensors and weapons and ultimately test those successfully on a government range.”