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New jet-powered UAV is the future of asymmetrical warfare

Wed, 03/05/2014 - 8:09am
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

While politicians and privacy advocates squabble over regulations for domestic drones, General Atomics has been hard at work developing the next unmanned terror of the skies for America’s foreign adversaries. Meet the Predator C Avenger, the future of asymmetrical warfare.

The Avenger is a true next-gen instrument of war. Unlike its predecessors — the relatively sluggish Predator and Reaper UAVs — the Avenger is propelled by a turbofan engine, capable of zipping along at a brisk 500 MPH. The Reaper — with its 300 mph top-speed — suddenly looks ... inadequate. The Avenger will sport an S-shaped exhaust for reduced heat and radar signature, along with sensors like EO/IR gimbal, SATCOM, AESA, and the Lynx Synthetic Aperture Radar.

It also contains a variation of the electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) — the Advanced Low-observable Embedded Reconnaissance Targeting (ALERT) system — found in the fifth-gen F-35. This ain’t your daddy’s UAV.

See: Engineering Update Episode 48: Jet-powered UAV can roam up to 1,800 miles

The Predator C will cart similar armament as its predecessors, including hellfire missiles and a 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). But the Reaper never dreamt of anything like the High Energy Liquid Laser Defense System (HELLADS) Solid-state laser weapon, standard complement on the Avenger. A General Atomics promo video shows the HELLADS intercepting enemy missiles.

The video also goes to great lengths to position the Avenger as a multi-role system capable of supporting manned fighters or conducting its own deep-strike operations. The Avenger will contain an airborne network for automated repositioning, precise geo-location, fused sensor video, and something very cool called "autonomous target prioritization". Is the latter an advanced Identify Friend or Foe (IFF) system? An elegant way to minimize collateral damage? Or a next-gen threat assessment system?

But the Avenger will really get a chance to flex its muscles if and when the US pulls out of Afghanistan at the end of the year. With a max range of 1,800 miles — and endurance of 18+ hours — the Avenger will prove especially invaluable for the CIA’s ongoing drone war in Northwest Pakistan — without forward-operating bases in Afghanistan, the turboprop-powered Predators and Reapers won’t have the stamina to reach their targets.

And that’s why the Avenger could be ready for deployment as early as late 2014. According to the USAF, the UAV will provide a “significantly increased weapons and sensors payload capacity on an aircraft that will be able to fly to targets much more rapidly than the MQ-9 [Reaper] UAS.”

Could the Avenger successfully engage conventional enemy jets? Probably not. The only known dogfight between unmanned and manned aircraft — in this case, a MiG-25 — ended badly for the Predator drone. And while the Avenger is the cool new kid on the block — with all the best toys — it won’t tilt the odds in favor of UAVs.  

But let’s face it — the “war on terror” isn’t ending anytime soon (if ever), and while the U.S. could find itself embroiled in some future war with a conventional nation state, it’s wise to bolster our capabilities for the most-likely scenario — asymmetrical, fourth-generation warfare. And in that respect, the Avenger provides a stupidly unfair advantage — like an Abrams tank squaring off with 19th century Zulu warriors.

I’ll leave the geopolitical discussions to the politicians, but this much is clear — if we continue fighting lopsided battles with primitive foes, the Avenger is a very sexy piece of military hardware and the future of asymmetrical warfare.

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