There’s a sleeper in the race for fielding more UAV capability. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems is already flying its reduced-signature Predator C while company researchers simultaneously explore a range of missions from ballistic missile intercept to suppression of enemy air defenses.
The new Predator C has a turbojet engine with hidden exhaust and recessed air intakes, swept wings and V-tail for redirecting radar reflections and some shaping. Depending on how much a customer wants to spend, the signature can be reduced to the point that with standoff weapons and cooperative tactics with other aircraft, even advanced air defense can be finessed and avoided.
The capability is making it interesting to the U.S. Navy, Britain and Italy.
‘They already have the ground stations and infrastructure in place [from operating Predator A and B]. Predator C plugs right into that,’ says GAAS’s chief, retired admiral Tom Cassidy. ‘Right now there is no prohibition about selling Predator C overseas to NATO countries, Japan or Australia. The entire Predator family is in Missile Technology Control Regime category one.’
Widespread interest in what could be a cheaper, modular, stealthy UAV brings up the question of how many different kinds of missions could the new aircraft be tailored for? The issue would turn around increasing capabilities without the design becoming too large, slow, expensive and vulnerable.
‘Ballistic Missile Defense is another area we’re looking hard at,’ Cassidy says. ‘Boost phase intercept [would be possible] by carrying an interceptor missile that would be cued by other detection devices as well as an on-board sensor. Or the UAV sensors could cue ground-based or shipboard interceptor missiles. It could go both ways.’
An Aegis-based SM-3 has already destroyed an errant satellite in space. Raytheon is being eyed as the source of an air-launched interceptor missile – a longer-range, faster variant of its AIM-120 AMRAAM.
‘We’re looking at Predator C as a player in that,’ he says. In addition, ‘We could do a lot of the signals intelligence and electronic attack mission from the Predator C since the EA-6Bs are going away. We’re putting 45 KVA generators on the Predator B. That’s plenty of electric power to hang jammers on the wings. Predator C would be a natural for that too. We have not decided what level of electric power we will have on the Predator C. We’ll see what kind of new jammer capabilities are out there.’
Predator C illustrations have shown it with a tailhook and folding wings which indicates an anticipated role on aircraft carrier.
‘The Navy has an interest in Predator C,’ Cassidy admits. ‘We can make it carrier suitable. We just have to beef up the landing gear, put a tailhook on it and add a nose tow for the catapult. The control system and throttle response is adequate.’
There’s also a move afoot to promote modularity and flexibility of payloads and weapons with interchangeable wings.
‘We’re looking at the inner wing box and how the outer panels attach to it,’ he says. ‘We have a wing fold there and we can put on alternative outer wing panels with a several foot wing tip extension to get longer endurance out of the airplane. It will take a few knots off the top end speed as a trade off for a couple of hours extra endurance.’