Aviation photographer Ian Tate caught quite the sight while spotting at General Atomics' drone plant located in the Mojave Desert. He was hoping to catch one of their Predator or Reaper UAVs, but instead he caught one of the elusive test articles that the company is betting its unmanned future on, the stealthy Avenger.
Located at a highly remote old army airfield turned radar cross-section measurement range about thirty miles east of Palmdale California and the Air Force's shadowy Plant 42, Gray Butte Field has grown massively since General Atomics, the makers of the world's most notorious drone, the MQ-1 Predator, took it over. What was once a sparse airstrip with some shacks and antennas at one end and a pole at the other, is now a bustling oasis of hangar facilities and flight test activities. Here is where, potentially, America's next best thing in unmanned technology is built and tested.
Although other big name defense contractors have tried to leapfrog General Atomics' established envelope of drone technology, the California based techno-firm has taken a more rationalized approach to their product line. The company, which also makes nuclear reactors and maglev trains, has focused on making incremental improvements to proven unmanned technology. This not only lowers the firm's risk but it also lowers acquisition and operating costs for potential customers.
Similar command console and communications architecture is shared among the company's MQ-1, MQ-9 and Gray Eagle fleet, along with some sensors and munitions. So while the biggest names in aerospace are all trying to build the next Lexus of unmanned air combat, General Atomics continues to build reliable, capable and efficient Camrys, and thus they still really do own the militarized unmanned aircraft market, well over a decade after it began to explode.
A few years ago General Atomics unveiled its first stealthy unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) known at the time as the "Predator C," although quickly after its launch it was just called the "Avenger." At the time of its unveiling some shots of it were released to the public, including some air-to-air photos, all from the top down, as well as this spectacular one taken at sunset on the Gray Butte facility's runway by acclaimed aviation photog Tyson Rininger.
Since then the Avenger program sneaked away to Afghanistan, where it was said that the system was being tested under real world conditions, a very strange announcement for a weapon system that was still so young at the time of its inaugural deployment. Although the Avenger is faster than the turbo-prop, bomb lugging MQ-9 Reaper, which means it can get to its target area quicker, the idea of sending such a young system, of which there were only two in existence at the time, seemed puzzling. But in retrospect, maybe it was not.
The Avenger was developed more as a sensor and weapons platform than a combat aircraft. The idea was to design an unmanned plane that had modular sensors, good performance, good stealth, and good payload, and thus it could do many things well, albeit without the price tag of doing even one of those things exceptionally well. That said, the aircraft is still incredibly capable, being able to cruise at some 400mph, and up to 60,000 feet depending on the configuration (the second prototype is slightly larger and heavier than the first). More importantly, the Avenger can stay airborne for over 18 hours, and possibly longer if fuel tanks are installed in its weapons bay.
As an information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, the Avenger was designed to be outfitted with various modular payloads, which include a highly capable Lynx synthetic aperture radar system. Lynx is capable of high-resolution synthetic aperture radar ground mapping as well as ground moving targeting indication (GMTI) modes. Installation of a sideways looking active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and other externally podded radar systems could give the v tailed drone even more tailored radar surveillance capabilities. Such systems will allow the Avenger to work in a tactical manner similar to how the Global Hawk and Triton do so strategically. Radar data from the Avenger's Lynx radar can also be used for targeting of its own weaponry.
The Avenger will also be equipped with an electro-optical targeting system that will preserve its stealthy radar signature by placing the aircraft's optics behind a series of gold plated, faceted windows while still offering similar capabilities as the MTS-B system deployed on its turboprop cousin, MQ-9 Reaper. This system is called the Advanced Low-Observable Embedded Reconnaissance and Targeting (ALERT) system and is similar in concept to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter's Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS).
It is rumored that the Avenger is also being developed with a signals and communications intelligence payload for eavesdropping on the enemy, even while loitering over their own airspace. There has also been talk about the Avenger being outfitted with advanced jamming and electronic attack equipment. The idea is that it could position itself just inside enemy airspace and provide jamming coverage for infiltrating allied strike packages. A similar system called "Pandora" was mounted on an MQ-9 Reaper and tested during the Marine Corps' Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) war-game just a few months ago.
Finally, a network fusion payload that takes various weapon systems' unique sensor picture and data-link language and fuses it together before rebroadcasting it, similar to the Air Force's Battlefield Airborne Communication Node (BACN), could be installed on the Avenger. This would allow any platform that is within line of sight of a loitering Avenger, and equipped with modern data-link, to be able to see a common picture of the battlespace and share other forms of data. Currently BACN is deployed on E-11 (USAF Global Express business jet), NASA WB-57 and EQ-4 Global Hawks. These are good platforms but they cannot deploy to the edge of the enemy's threat envelope without being vulnerable and are extremly expensive to replace, not including the potential harm to their crews in the WB-57 and E-11's case.
Since the DoD is now focusing its strategic might on the great expanses of the Pacific, a place where the enemy (China) can deny America access out to hundreds, if not thousands of miles from their shores, being able to park a low observable and relatively expedable drone deep inside this area, which is presumably inaccessible to traditional aircraft, to provide an "active network" for advancing F-35, Stealth Bombers, and F-22s, would be a very useful capability. Other higher-end unmanned stealth aircraft, such as the all but disclosed "RQ-180"(I am sure that is not its real designation) are most likely already tapped to do this mission today, but with great cost and technological advancement comes low production numbers and a real fear of an example falling into enemy hands. This is especially true after the RQ-170-Iran incident a couple years ago. An Avenger modified to provide a BACN-like function could present a much more numerous and lower technological risk alternative to more advanced and sensitive systems.
When it comes to weaponry, those big long doors on the Avenger's belly can house about 3,500 lbs of smart bombs including up to a single 2000lb JDAM (GBU-31). That gives the Avenger the same offensive punch while in clean "stealthy" configuration as the F-117, albeit with one 2,000 lb class weapon carried internally instead of two. In a destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD) role, the Avenger could loiter in hostile territory, or just outside of it, and sling small diameter bombs (SDB) that can glide over 50 miles from the Avenger's perch at 50,000+ feet, and strike threatening enemy radar emitters as they pop up.
The Avenger can also be armed for counter-insurgency and close air support operations over permissible airspace. This would see her configured with hardpoints on her wings capable of carrying close to 7,000 lbs of ordinance, including GPS guided JDAMs, Hellfire missiles, and laser guided bombs and rockets. Even a solid state laser has been envisioned for the Avenger, one that could work for shooting down ballistic missile or even surface to air missiles in their launch phase.
For command and control, General Atomics is doing away with the "soda straw" like visual awareness that has handicapped Predator and Reaper pilots for the last decade and half or so, and has tested the Avenger with its new Advanced Cockpit Ground Control Station, which features wrap around screens that repeat the video feed from a distributed camera system mounted around the Avenger. This new system is optimized for single pilot operation and allows the pilot to "get into the fight" much more than the traditional Predator and Reaper ground control stations.
While the Avenger may be the most humble design among its stealthy flying wing advanced UCAV peers, such as Boeing's Phantom Ray, Lockheed's Sea Ghost and Northrop Grumman's X-47B, it also offers a capability that would be considered highly exotic just a decade or so ago (hint, read the mission of the mythical TR-3A from my recent piece on the mystery flying wings spotted over the central US).
General Atomics' no-frills approach to the low observable, jet powered, unmanned combat air vehicle may actually help when it comes to the Navy's looming Unmanned Carrier Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) bid. This program is the Navy's first attempt at integrating an operationally relevant advanced combat drone into its carriers' air wings. Originally it was expected to require a deep penetrating, high subsonic, bat-winged, state of the art design, but now it seems more like its requirements were written based on the Avenger's sales brochure, with a greater focus on cost, surveillance, endurance, rudimentary capabilities like acting as an aerial tanker, and reliability, than deep interdiction against an enemy with an advanced air defense network. Thus General Atomics' "Sea Avenger," an outgrowth design of the baseline Avenger airframe, which was the dark horse in the contest originally, may be poised to take the prize.
Even the Avenger's physical form is low risk in nature, as it borrows the majority of its design attributes from the highly successful, but thirty five year old, "Tacit Blue" design. Yet if the Navy wants something that is by its very design low risk in nature, and more of a sensor and weapon truck than a super-fighter-like autonomous drone, then they have an option that also happens to possess the finest pedigree of any other unmanned systems manufacturer. That is not to say that the USAF, and possibly the CIA, are also not highly interested in the Avenger, which may have been a reason for its fading into the "gray world" over the last few years. Such occurrences often happen once a new technology like this lands a "customer."
We already know that loitering over enemy and even friendly airspace undetected while tracking our enemies is a top priority for both the Agency and the USAF, as the rise to fame (killing Bin Laden) and the fall from grace (landing intact in Iranian hands) of the Skunkworks' RQ-170 Sentinel proved to the world just a couple years ago. The Avenger may offer a nice upgrade over the RQ-170 for such mission sets, at least in comparison to the Sentinel's diminutive configuration that we have come to know. At the very least the Avenger would provide an intermediate option between the unstealthy but munitions laden MQ-9 Reaper, and the broadband stealth and surveillance optimized of the RQ-170 Sentinel.
When you factor in all of the Avenger's attributes, including its less than leading edge design (low technological risk if lost), we may have the perfect weapon for America's continuing drone offensive on bad guys overseas. Its ability to get to the target fast, stay there for the better part of a day, all the while collecting many types of intelligence, and its ability to rain down large amounts of precision fire from above while remaining largely undetected by a vast amount of the world's enemy air defenses, is pretty much a dream come true for America's dark trailer-bound remote controller assassins.
In the end, the General Atomics Avenger is really the F/A-18E/F/G of the modern unmanned combat aircraft world. It may not offer as much speed or stealth as its F-22 counterpart, but it is a no-nonsense cost effective tool that has incrementally outclassed most of its peers when it comes to adaptability, reliability, cost-effectiveness and systems integration. Considering that the Avenger can accomplish probably 85% of the foreseeable unmanned missions at probably a fraction of the cost of its high-end competitors, all the while risking less to the enemy in the process, I have a feeling we will be seeing a lot more of this innovative weapon system in the very near future.
But now we will just have to settle for Ian Tate's fantastic photos...
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com
Photo credits: Ian Tate for new Avenger shots, Predator and Reaper shots via APImages, head-on ramp shot of Avenger via Robin Yong/wikicommons, Gray Butte aerial via Google Earth, the rest are industry provided/public domain.