The MQ-9 Reaper drone's replacement has to be able to carry out air-to-air combat, fly in highly-contested environments, and more, as the U.S. Air Force states in its latest request for information (RFI) posted on the U.S. government’s contracting website beta.SAM.gov.
The drone replacement program, called MQ-Next, has already been in motion for a little while. This most recent RFI outlines that the service is now looking for a future unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that features defensive counter-air capabilities that are able to protect high-value manned aircraft, as well as fly red aggressor missions, reports The Drive, the first to report on the new RFI.
There's no direct mention of MQ-Next in the Air Force's latest RFI. However, it explicitly mentions that it's looking for solutions to replace its MQ-9 Reaper.
What the Air Force is looking for to replace the MQ-9 Reaper drone
There are hints that the MQ-9's replacement will have to partake in combat in highly-contested environments as the RFI requests the replacement to be tailored for Great Power Competition. It's also meant to fly in permissive environments.
What this most likely means is that the next UAV will most likely have to be able to carry out air-to-air and base defense, electronic warfare, and moving target surveillance against air and ground assets.
As the RFI states "These Next-Gen Multi-Role UAS FoS may be comprised of attributable, expendable, survivable and reusable attributes, which can attain desired effects in various operating environments."
The Air Force also explains that this is only an RFI, and that it "wants to obtain price, delivery, other market information, or capabilities for planning purposes," and no contracts will be signed at this stage.
It's interesting to see what the Air Force is looking for, and what we may expect to see in the future of UAV combat capabilities. It's still too early to tell what will happen, but we already know that the usual companies are interested in the project, with the likes of Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and General Atomics in line to make suggestions.