The U.S. Air Force is conducting a study to determine how long its heavily used MQ-9 Reaper will last, an effort that could guide future spending decisions on the remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), a service official said June 7.

The Air Force plans to complete the first phase of the two-phase study this summer and the second phase in fiscal year 2020, said Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, military deputy for the Air Force acquisition office.

An MQ-9 Reaper. Photo: U.S. Air Force
An MQ-9 Reaper. Photo: U.S. Air Force

The “MQ-9 program is actively engaged in a study to determine the actual service life of the MQ-9 platform,” Bunch testified before the House Armed Services Committee’s tactical air and land forces panel. “The results of this study will better inform the Air Force’s decision on long-term sustainment of the MQ-9 program.”

The Air Force achieved an initial operational capability with the armed surveillance plane in 2007 and has bought more than 300 aircraft. Bunch said the Air Force’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft force has seen a “significant decrease” in the most severe kind of mishap over the past year, mainly due to a jump in MQ-9 flight hours and a decline in flight hours of the older MQ-1 Predator. Both aircraft are built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI).

The Air Force’s FY 2018 budget request includes $1.1 billion for the Reaper, including several modernization activities and the purchase of 16 aircraft. Modernization efforts include the development of the new Block 50 ground control station, a new sensor package and an extended range enhancement.

Also during the hearing, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), the panel’s chairman, welcomed the Air Force’s recent reversal of its decision to retire the aging U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft in FY 2019. The Air Force’s FY 2018 budget request calls for retaining the U-2 through FY 2022. Despite the reversal, the military will still face a significant shortfall in its airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) needs, Turner said.

The Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy “need to take a hard look at their investment strategies in airborne ISR capacity because a significant portion of combatant commander’s requirements are still unmet in many of the intelligence disciplines,” he said.