In service with 10 air forces, 9 of which are NATO members, the MQ-9 Reaper Medium Altitude Long Endurance drone from the American General Atomics, today constitutes the Western reference in the field of combat drones. this range. Capable of holding the air for 15 hours at more than 7 km altitude and more than 300 km/h while carrying 4 Hellfire or Brimstone air-to-ground missiles, the Reaper is today a central component of the operations carried out by Western armies, particularly over the vast expanses of Africa and the Middle East, both to monitor the movements of potential adversaries and to carry out strikes of opportunity. Since their entry into service, the MQ-1 Predator and especially its successor, the MQ-9 Reaper, both produced by General Atomics, have profoundly transformed the conduct of military operations in so-called low- and medium-intensity theaters. On the other hand, as soon as it came to using them over contested areas with anti-aircraft systems, the essential effectiveness of MALE drones was largely undermined.
This was particularly the case during the Libyan civil war which pitted the forces of the Tripoli government against those of General Haftar controlling the Benghazi region. With forces on both sides having short- and medium-range SA-8 and SA-6 anti-aircraft systems, as well as newer systems like the Russian Pantsir, these anti-aircraft weapon systems dealt heavy blows to the Predators and other Wing Loong trying to monitor the opposing forces on both sides. Even the formidable Reaper was unable to operate safely over the Libyan skies, as was also the case over Syria a few months earlier. The vulnerability of current MALE and HALE drones is, however, in no way a recent discovery for the US Air Force, which began in 2019 to develop a replacement for the MQ-9 precisely capable of operating above present and future contested spaces. . This program, which is currently codenamed MQ-Next, aims for the entry into service of this new MALE drone model between 2030 and 2035, and intends to have capabilities much greater than those of the current MQ-9.
On the occasion of the 2022 Air Force Association conference, the designer of the Reaper and Predator, General Atomics, presented its vision of what the US Air Force's next MALE MQ-Next drone could be (in main illustration). And it is clear, in view of the ambitions displayed by the American aircraft manufacturer, that this future generation of drone intends to offer a major capacity gain compared to the current generation, well beyond, for example, what today brings the 5th generation of combat aircraft compared to the 4th. Indeed, even if most of the research on the subject is still shrouded in secrecy, General Atomics presented some of the major capabilities of its MQ-Next. Thus, the drone will be designed in the form of a stealthy flying wing so as to reduce the radar equivalent surface area of the device as much as possible to allow its use over contested spaces. Likewise, the equipment and weapons will be integrated into the cell or transported in the hold so as not to degrade the stealth of the machine. It will also be equipped with a new hybrid electric propulsion improving the performance of its turbojet so as to give it an autonomy of more than 60 hours of flight, 4 times more than the Reaper, at a much higher cruising speed, offering it unrivaled performance in terms of range of the order of 35,000 km or more, potentially allowing the MQ-Next to take off from Hawaii, cross the Pacific to carry out a 20-hour surveillance mission in the skies of the China Sea , before returning to its departure base, without in-flight refueling or stopovers, and in the most discreet manner.
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