The Air Force is conducting a study that will inform how the service will continue its critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions as it begins to phase out production of its MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial systems, acquisition chief Will Roper said March 10.

The service plans to reduce the General Atomics Aerospace Systems Inc.-developed MQ-9 Reaper combat lines from 70 to 60 by eliminating 10 contractor-operated lines while maintaining all MQ-9 aircraft in the fiscal year 2021 budget plan. House Armed Services Committee (HASC) member Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) sought clarity on why the production line would be reduced in a Tuesday hearing on Capitol Hill.

“Why the major change in plans, and how will the Air Force address its ISR gap?” he asked.

Roper told the committee that the Air Force is planning to build the “next generation” of ISR drones with a mixture of options, including “more high-end, unique” systems that will require lots of money to ensure their survivability, as well as commercial platforms that can “push the price point down” and provide attritable systems for added capacity.

“We’re doing studies now to see what our mix could be, and I anticipate that will be one of our major decisions in our FY ’22 budget for the Air Force,” Roper said during the hearing.

The study is being led by the Air Force’s Program Executive Office for ISR and Special Operations Forces at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, he told a small group of reporters after the hearing. He expects it to be complete before the end of the fiscal year to inform the service’s FY ’22 Program Objective Memorandum (POM), which is currently in development, he added.

“It’s a really great time to give [PEO ISR & SOF] an innovative program because as their portfolio appears to be trending down … it’s important that they have something that’s the new version of them that’s innovative, that’s indicative of their future,” he said.

The Air Force has to work on dropping the cost of the counter-violent extremism mission, both in manpower and unit price, Roper said.

He added that employing commercial drone services in the defense industry could help smaller, newer companies begin to scale their production while offering the service a “much lower, much cheaper” way to sustain cost.

“Working with the Defense Department, you don’t need the kind of production capacity that the globe does, so we’re a pretty good first stop,” he said. He also told the committee that while the Reaper had “undeniable overmatch in a low-end fight and has certainly saved many lives, … as we look to the high-end fight, we just can’t take them into the battlefield.”

Roper warned that if the Defense Department does not move quickly to engage builders of large UAS, the market could go the same way of small, hobbyist UAS and be saturated by Chinese products, as was seen with DJI’s Phantom drone.

The service’s ISR portfolio could look very different in FY ’21 if Congress approves its proposed FY ’21 presidential budget request, released Feb. 10 (Defense Daily.) It includes the retirement of 24 Block 20/30 RQ-4 Global Hawks, including three EQ-4B drones equipped with Northrop Grumman’s Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) system, as well as reducing the MQ-9 lines.

In order to provide sufficient levels of ISR with the divestment of the Global Hawk 20/30 assets and reducing MQ-9 combat lines, the Air Force will maintain and modernize the U-2 [Dragon Lady ISR aircraft] and the Global Hawk Block 40 fleets and maintain 60 government-owned/government operated MQ-9 combat lines, the Air Force previously told Defense Daily.

The service also plans to procure one Bombardier E-11A BACN-enabled aircraft through the five-year future years defense plan (FYDP), with plans to bring the total fleet up to eight by FY ’26. One E-11A aircraft suffered a fatal crash in Afghanistan last month, leaving the Air Force with three in its current inventory.

Vela also asked whether the Air Force’s proposed MQ-9 retirements could affect other services operating the Reaper. Marine Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, the service’s deputy commandant for aviation, said during the hearing that while the Marines recently welcomed their first MQ-9 operators at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, he is also looking at the “wide-open” unmanned systems industry for the service’s next generations of drones.

“We hope to be able to continue to operate with the Air Force,” he told Vela. However, “We’re ready to step out on our own system,” he added.