The concept designs of three companies that have acknowledged their interest in the U.S. Air Force vision for MQ-Next all feature flying wings–a nearly 550 year-old concept, first pondered by Leonardo da Vinci around 1485 and most notably realized in the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-2 stealth bomber. But, if these concept designs gain traction in an acquisition program, such flying wings may scale up significantly in the unmanned arena.
Unveiled at this week’s Air Force Association virtual Air, Space, and Cyber conference, the MQ-Next concept designs of Northrop Grumman, General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems Inc., and Lockheed Martin‘s [LMT] Skunk Works feature the flying wing. Boeing [BA] and Kratos have also submitted concept designs but did not reveal drawings for them.
The flying wing designs of the three companies appear to have inherent advantages for the MQ-Next unmanned aircraft system (UAS) envisioned by the Air Force for Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS)-linked military operations against China and Russia, the “near peer” threats called out by military pundits.
The flying wing has greater lift and stealth and uses less fuel, but may present some flight control problems in pitch and yaw.
The three companies’ MQ-Next designs were in response to a June 3 Air Force request for information for MQ-Next, an envisioned next-generation, medium altitude, long endurance, ISR and strike drone or family of drones to succeed the General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper.
Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said recently that he wants to field a multi-mission follow-on to the MQ-9 Reaper by 2030 and hopes to accelerate that timeline and field several, successively advanced lines of MQ-Next over the next decade (Defense Daily, July 14). Roper said that MQ-Next must not solely replace the MQ-9 mission, but do more, to generate cost savings. New mission areas for MQ-Next, he said, may be air-to-air and the defense of high-value ISR assets.
The Air Force RFI seeks out new platforms that would include advances in artificial intelligence/machine learning, autonomy, open mission systems (OMS), digital engineering and attritable technology.
Northrop Grumman’s SG-2 flying wing design, drawn in part from the X-47B, is to incorporate OMS and adaptive autonomy to allow SG-2 to exchange information with a diverse set of systems through the company’s distributed autonomy responsive control (DARC) architecture.
“Every vehicle could be different,” Richard Sullivan, vice president for advanced programs for future combat UAS, said in a telephone interview. “Its performance parameters could be different. Its sensor suites could be different. DARC will optimize, based on having a set of mission objectives, the optimal mission effectiveness with all the assets in play and effectively use the trusted algorithms in DARC to optimize the performance. Computers are best at optimizing multi-variable parametric analysis.”
Sullivan said that an MQ-Next family of “long-range, penetrating, survivable platforms,” made affordably with digital engineering and advanced manufacturing techniques, would be “invaluable” in overcoming “the tyranny of distance” and threats in the Pacific region.
“We have designed our next-gen ISR/Strike UAS solution to enable cross-domain synergies and provide operational flexibility through the depth of the battlespace, by leveraging new advanced sensing systems, machine-to-machine interfaces for increased speed, and autonomous technologies to give our forces the flexibility to support all operations across the spectrum of contested environments and the phases of conflict,” David Alexander, the president of GA-ASI, wrote in a Sept. 18 email. “Those opportunities must be maximized, however, by providing a platform with ultra-long endurance and an ability to stay engaged in the fight far longer than current-generation UAS.”
Alexander said that the GA-ASI flying wing, ISR/strike UAS “will reshape the battlefield of tomorrow by compressing the ‘observe, orient, decide, and act (OODA) loop’ and providing operational flexibility through the depth of the battlefield, from permissive to highly contested environments.”
“Our advancements in propulsion technology will give commanders a longer reach than ever before,” Alexander wrote in his email.
Some drones, such as the classified Lockheed Martin RQ-170, the Northrop Grumman RQ-180, and the Russian S-70 Okhotnik-B by Sukhoi, feature flying wings, but MQ-Next may be a springboard for the designs for the Pentagon, if MQ-Next becomes a program with significant funding.
“The whole MQ-X issue is wrapped up in how much of this stuff is going on in the ‘black’ world considering the existence of programs, such as RQ-170 and RQ-180,” Steven Zaloga, a drone analyst with the Teal Group, wrote in a Sept. 18 email. “This makes it very difficult to determine whether MQ-X will become a program of record, a smokescreen for secret programs, or some mix of secret and public programs.”
In its version of the fiscal 2021 funding bill, the House Appropriations Committee is recommending the reversal of the Air Force’s proposed end in fiscal 2021 of the MQ-9 Reaper production line and the acceleration before 2030 of the fielding of whatever drone or drones turn out to be “MQ-Next.”
The House Appropriations Committee’s fiscal 2021 defense appropriations bill would fund 16 MQ-9s for $344 million.