The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s MQ-9 program office at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio said on Apr. 20 that it is upgrading the General Atomics drone to counter near-peer adversaries–Pentagon-speak for China and Russia.

While U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has relied upon the MQ-9 Reaper as a strike and intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) platform against extremist organizations, “that mission is now shifting,” AFLCMC said.

As such, AFLCMC this month plans to award General Atomics the first delivery order for planned MQ-9 Multi-Domain Operation (M2D0) aircraft, which will include several upgrades, including resistance to jamming and other interference with aircraft command and control; increased electronic power; an open architecture for the rapid insertion of new technology; upgrades to the MQ-9 electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor; and the ability to carry new weapons.

The Air Force is considering affordable, off-the-shelf EO/IR options to replace the MQ-9’s EO/IR suite–the Raytheon Technologies [RTX] Multispectral Targeting System-B (MTS-B) reconnaissance pod. Such options could include the integration of artificial intelligence/machine learning, autonomy, digital engineering, attritable technology, and open mission systems (Defense Daily, March 30).

The Air Force said that it would like to achieve initial operational capability (IOC) for the pod on the MQ-9 between the first quarter of fiscal 2022 and the third quarter of fiscal 2025 and to achieve IOC for new EO/IR pods on other drones by the third quarter of fiscal 2030.

The Air Force expects that the M2DO upgrades will keep the MQ-9 operationally relevant until its projected end of service in 2035. The service has begun retrofitting some MQ-9s with M2DO, per AFLCMC.

“Working with Air Combat Command and other stakeholders, the MQ-9 enterprise will add new capabilities to the platform to help ensure the MQ-9 is able to support these missions in the threat environment we envision,” Air Force Lt. Col. Nick Jordan, materiel Leader for MQ-9 production and retrofit, said in a statement. “The user has directed us to add technology into the platform which signals that the MQ-9 can offer more capability than just C-VEO [counter-violent extremist organization] operations over the next ten to fifteen years. It can remain relevant with these added and upgraded technologies.”

Jordan’s statement comes a day after U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of CENTCOM, told the House Armed Services Committee that future operations in the Middle East will require a “bigger, better, different” capability for ISR than the current MQ-9 (Defense Daily, Apr. 20).

Former Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said last July that he envisions fielding a replacement for the MQ-9 by 2030 (Defense Daily, July 14 2020).

The Air Force has released an Request for Information for the “MQ-Next” effort, seeking input on solutions that would include next-generation technologies such as artificial intelligence, autonomy, open-ended systems, machine learning and digital engineering.