The Reaper has become the workhorse replacement for the Predator UAV ("drone") and is used extensively around the world. General Atomics has built
nearly 200 of the ISR/strike UAVs since the Reaper's first flight in 2001. The Reaper will remain in service for at least another 10 years. The
Reaper does work and work well against lower tier enemies. This would include insurgents and whatnot. However, against near peer or even second rate
adversaries, the Reaper is so much lunch meat. As such, the US Air Force has decided it finally needs to replace the MQ-9 Reaper.
This has launched the MQ-NEXT program. The intent this time is for being able to use the Reaper replacement against near peers and even peer
adversaries. This means higher levels of stealth for one. It also wants more missions than the MQ-9 can do. While there's a danger of mission
creep, this new bird isn't just going to be an upgraded Reaper. There is a desire to reduce the number of people needed to support the aircraft,
too. Esp in logistics. Additionally, it needs to be able to function in the environment where GPS has been denied. The desire is to see the new
UCAV operational by 2031.
So far, three companies have released images of their concepts. All of them are variants of flying wings. To be sure, the Northrop is a cranked kite
(gasp! shock! horror! surprise!), but even General Atomics has decided a flying wing is the way to go rather than continuing the
Predator->Reaper->avenger bauplan evolution. Take a look and comment:
If they look familiar, they should, at least for two of them. The Lockheed and Northrop birds look very closely like their proposals in the UCLASS
and what became the MQ-25A stingray programs.
Boeing appears to have not released an image as yet. They are planning on pursuing the program though.
Before everyone gets too excited, it should be remembered that the USAF started to replace the Reaper before. The MQ-X program was cancelled.
I am /really/ surprised this program isn't a candidate for the so-called 'e programs' that go from cad to aircraft in short order. The NGAD did
this for its demo. the MQ-NEXT should be even easier to do than the NGAD. However, I've not heard rumblings or even whispers of this being included
there. Time will tell.
If the MQ-NEXT does go forward, it's looking more and more like a flying wing of some sort will be used. Unless, of course, Boeing surprises us and
surprises the Pentagon with being able to stay on budget and have good program management.