The House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel (HAC-D) is recommending the reversal of the U.S. Air Force’s proposed end in fiscal 2021 of the General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper production line and the acceleration before 2030 of the fielding of a to-be-determined follow-on drone, “MQ-Next.”

The panel’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 the HAC-D report. “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, HAC-D “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,” the panel report said. “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.”

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 the Air Force’s future Advanced Battle Management System.