Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper on July 14 said that he envisions fielding a multi-mission follow-on to the General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper by 2030 and that he hopes to accelerate that timeline.

“Absolutely, we can get there by 2030,” Roper told reporters in response to a question on the follow-on during a virtual press availability. “In a digitally engineered future, 10 years is an eternity. I would hope we can spiral multiple times within that 10 years. The key is…that if all we do is replace the MQ-9 mission, we’ve really generated a bill for the Air Force. We haven’t saved it any funding to be able to afford the program itself.”

Roper’s comments come as the House Appropriations Committee is recommending the reversal of the U.S. Air Force’s proposed end in fiscal 2021 of the MQ-9 Reaper production line and the acceleration before 2030 of the fielding of a to-be-determined follow-on drone, “MQ-Next.”

“We made the pivot to divest MQ-9s to pivot into high-end warfighting,” Roper said on July 14. “We’re going to have to build systems for high-end warfighting and team systems for high-end warfighting. I think the litmus test for MQ-9 is going to be what other letter can we assign to its name because it’s doing missions other than ISR [intelligence, surveillance] and strike. Ones that jump to the forefront for me are arming systems with air-to-air weapons, not just  air-to-ground, so that you can play a role with forward TACAIR [tactical air forces], but also being able to pull said system back to defend high-value assets that don’t have defensive systems that are able to hold adversary air at risk.”

“I think that would be a wonderful combination,” he said. Other possible missions for the envisioned multi-mission follow-on to MQ-9 could include flying combat air patrols to protect refueling tankers and defending forward operating bases in contested environments, Roper said.

The House Appropriations Committee’s fiscal 2021 defense appropriations bill would fund 16 MQ-9s for $344 million.

“The Air Force’s fiscal year 2021 budget request proposes to terminate production of MQ–9 aircraft, citing an excess of aircraft compared to projected operational requirements,” according to report language on the bill. “The committee does not accept this proposal and recommends additional funding for 16 MQ–9 aircraft. The committee is concerned that the Air Force has reached this decision without adequate planning for a follow-on system.”

On June 3, the Air Force released a request for information to begin searching for next-generation unmanned aerial vehicles that could eventually replace the MQ-9 Reaper. Responses are due by July 15.

“The committee is aware that the Air Force recently released a request for information (RFI) to industry for improved solutions for future unmanned aerial systems with both intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and strike capabilities, including a potential follow-on to the MQ–9,” according to House Appropriations Committee report language. “However, this RFI assumes that initial operating capability would not be achieved until 2030, and the Air Force budget request includes only a small amount of funding for concept exploration.”

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.

Because of the small amount of funding the Air Force proposes for the MQ-9 follow-on concept exploration in fiscal 2021, the House Appropriations Committee “directs the Secretary of the Air Force to submit a report to the congressional defense committees not later than the submission of the fiscal year 2022 budget request on an MQ–9 follow-on program to be designated as MQ–Next,” according to the report language. “The goal of the MQ–Next program should be to accelerate the development and fielding of a next-generation medium altitude unmanned aerial system. The report shall detail the desired features of such a system, the cost and timeline required to achieve development and fielding, proposed measures to ensure full and open competition, and an explanation of how such a system would fulfill the goals of the National Defense Strategy.”

Roper said on July 14 that the ongoing study on the MQ-9 replacement is “complicated,” as he said the Air Force needs the replacement drones to be “true utility players” in an environment that will feature the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS). The MQ-9 replacement “can’t be just a new way to do ISR in the Middle East,” Roper said.

On July 8, Brig. Gen. David Harris, director of Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC) and the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements, told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ virtual audience that the General Atomics’ MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 represent a “two-lane model” of the highways envisioned by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and that Air Force leaders “want to turn that into the Autobahn,” with the aid of ABMS.