The Air Force released a June 3 request for information to begin searching for next-generation unmanned aerial vehicles that could eventually replace the MQ-9 Reaper drone.

The notice, first reported by Aviation Week, states that the service is conducting market research for future UAS with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike capabilities. While it notes that the MQ-9 enterprise – built by General Atomics – continues to serve the Air Force’s needs for ISR missions around the world, the service is beginning to plan for its end of service, and “a need to identify a solution that continues to provide for this demand is imperative.”

The RFI seeks out new platforms that would include next-generation technologies such as artificial intelligence, autonomy, open-ended systems, machine learning and digital engineering.

Along with seeking new platforms that would fill the mission, the Air Force is also interested in “researching alternative ways to support future lower-end, lower-cost ISR missions which may include initiatives to modernize, augment, and/or replace existing systems.”

Initial Operational Capability is expected to occur in the second half of fiscal year 2031, with initial deliveries to begin in the end of 2030.

Responses are due by July 15. The Air Force has not decided upon an acquisition strategy and plans to hold several competitions for the new air vehicle, for the ground control systems and for the data and sensors technology.

This past March, Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper shared that the service was working on a study that could determine a plan to replace the MQ-9, and inform the FY ’22 budget process. The Air Force has previously attempted to begin replacing the Reaper, but the program was canceled in 2012.

The Air Force’s fiscal year 2021 presidential budget request included plans to reduce the MQ-9 combat lines from 70 to 60, by eliminating 10 contractor-operated lines while maintaining all MQ-9 aircraft. It also plans to divest a number of its Northrop Grumman [NOC]-built RQ-4 Global Hawk drones, namely the 20/30 assets. A service spokesperson told Defense Daily in February that the service plans to maintain the 60 remaining MQ-9 combat units, the Global Hawk 40 units and modernized U-2 Dragon Lady ISR aircraft to provide sufficient levels of ISR should Congress approve the requested divestments (Defense Daily, Feb. 10).