Air Force Plans a Major New Combat Drone for the 2030s

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The U.S. Air Force is beginning the process of developing a new combat unmanned aerial system (UAS) set to enter the force in in fiscal 2030, according to a request for information (RFI) released June 3. While the program is in the early stages, this effort is designed to lead to a major defense acquisition program worth billions of dollars.

Responses to the RFI are due July 15. The RFI seeks potential solutions for the Next Generation UAS ISR (intelligence surveillance reconnaissance)/Strike platform and the Next Generation Medium Altitude UAS as a follow-on to the MQ-9 Reaper weapon system.

The RFI has three focus areas:

  • Potential medium-altitude UAS ISR/strike systems currently in development or already developed;
  • Innovative development practices to improve technology for UAS platforms supporting ISR/strike missions; and
  • Early risk-reduction digital engineering initiatives.

The Air Force expects initial deliveries of the aircraft to start in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2030, with initial operational capability in the third quarter of fiscal 2031. The acquisition strategy hasn’t yet been determined, but the Air Force says it envisions multiple competitions to include the air vehicle; automated ISR sensors and data exploitation; and ground control stations, systems, and suites.

(U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Haley Stevens)
The sun sets on the MQ-9 Reaper program as the Air Force announces development of a new system.

Bloomberg Government’s May 2020 market spending profile for unmanned systems states that the largest UAV programs and budgets in the near future were in the Navy, while the Air Force had not released any plans for a major new system. This RFI changes that picture somewhat. While the budget for this program has not yet been determined, details will probably emerge in the fiscal 2022 defense budget, according to a report in Defense News.

The MQ-9 Reaper program, which will be replaced by this new system, began in fiscal 2002 and is scheduled to be phased out in fiscal 2024. It involved a total of 433 aircraft at an acquisition cost (research, test, development, evaluation and procurement) of about $13 billion, not including the additional operating costs of the system. Those costs were about $5.8 million per year per aircraft in 2008, or about $7.2 million in current dollars, using the Defense Department’s operation and maintenance deflator in the fiscal 2021 budget request.

The prime contractor, General Atomics Technologies Corp., has received about $14.2 billion in defense contract obligations related to the MQ-9 since fiscal 2002, according to BGOV data.

To contact the analyst on this story: Robert Levinson in Washington, D.C. at

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