Last week General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) announced that they had flown one of their Avenger drones with an advanced sensor pod produced by Lockheed Martin
The Avenger (or Predator C) was intended to be the follow-up to GA-ASI’s groundbreaking MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones, the mainstay of the U.S. unmanned aircraft fleet. Unlike the earlier drones, the Avenger has a turbofan engine – its speed and other performance metrics remain secret – and is highly stealthy to both radar and infrared sensors. This means it can operate in a hostile environment; while Reapers are easy prey for surface-to-air missiles and fighters, the Avenger can slip past unseen.
The U.S. Air Force was not enthusiastic about the new drone, perhaps put off by the high price, and looked for lower-cost alternatives after buying only one test aircraft. An unnamed U.S. government customer, likely the CIA, has purchased ‘no more than six’ Avengers according to company representatives in 2017.
GA-ASI may now be looking at new opportunities. Last month yhr Air Force purchased two Avengers for the Skyborg Vanguard Program which is developing autonomous drones with Artificial Intelligence and machine mearning capabilities. These technologies will be incorporated into a next generation of U.S. Air Force combat drones which will partner with manned jets – there is an impressive/scary Skyborg video here.
The new development may be linked with the Skyborg contract. Lockheed Martin’s Legion Pod is a 550-pound infra-red sensor with advanced processing. It combines the company’s proven IRST21 infra-red search-and-track system with a new processor to detect, locate, track and identify aircraft at long range by the heat signature from their engines and airframe.
Traditionally aircraft rely on radar to detect each other. But radar on a plane is much like headlights on a car : it illuminates what you want to see, but makes you easily visible to others. Infra-red systems, are passive and do not emit anything to give away their position. Hence the stealthy F-35 has sophisticated infra-red sensors to fight without turning its radar on. The Legion Pod has already fitted to F-15C and F-16 aircraft to give them what the makers call “see first, strike first capability.”
Crucially, the Legion Pod is networked for ‘collaborative targeting engagements.’ This means that a Legion-equipped stealthy aircraft can locate and flag enemy aircraft (even stealthy ones) and pass on target data so they can be engaged with missiles from non-stealthy aircraft further away. Putting the Legion pod on Avengers could allow them to act as spotters for manned aircraft staying outside of the danger zone.
This might be a suitable response to Russia’s stealthy Okhotnik (‘Hunter’) drones which were tested with air-to-air missiles last month. Or the U.S could go down the same route as Russia – and indeed Iran – and arm the drones themselves with missiles to take out aircraft. The Avenger has an internal weapons bay capable of carrying 3,500 pounds of weapons; the F-35 has shown how air-to-air missiles can be launched from an internal bay to maintain stealth.
GA-ASI are not giving any clues of the purpose of the pod integration with the Avenger or their possible plans.
“From software and hardware architecture implementation to sensor integration, the Avenger is a great platform for delivering critical capabilities,” J.R. Reid, Vice President of Strategic Development, stated cryptically in a press release, not saying which critical capabilities the Avenger might be addressing.
Give an Avenger both a Legion sensor and the autonomy that Skyborg promises, and you might be looking at the smart, stealthy and expendable air combatant of the future. But we may not hear about any of the details soon.