A reduction in the size and weight of high-energy laser technology is making it possible for General Atomics to realistically consider integrating an airborne laser with its Predator C Avenger Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, creating what is fondly known as a HEL Avenger, a company official said. The Air Force has one Avenger in its inventory as a test asset, and the service has put GA on contract to deliver a second aircraft in early 2015.
General Atomics is the lead contractor for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s High-Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System, or HELLADS, which seeks to foster laser technology to the point where a high-energy laser weapon system can be integrated with a tactical aircraft.
In a March 24 interview with Inside the Air Force, GA’s Director of Strategic Development for Defense Department programs Chris Pehrson said the company plans to leverage the technology generated in HELLADS to fit a High-Energy Laser (HEL) into the weapons bay of its Avenger aircraft. This capability is depicted in an Avenger promotional video on YouTube, although Pehrson concedes this type of system is a future ambition.
“We’re looking at a fairly powerful solid-state laser that could be used for anything from ground attack — taking out soft to semi-hard targets such as an antenna or a soft vehicle,” Pehrson said. The company is similarly interested in using the HEL to shoot down incoming missiles, thereby making the Avenger more survivable. But Pehrson said that capability requires much more development, specifically the processes for directing the HEL beam and queuing threats.
The Defense Department has a long, expensive track record of trying to employ high-energy lasers on aircraft, most notably its $5 billion investment in a Boeing 747 Airborne Laser Testbed which entered long-term storage in 2012. In spite of past attempts, the department is continuing its laser research efforts on a smaller scale through DARPA — particularly the complementary HELLADS and Excalibur programs.
In a March 27 news release, DARPA said its Excalibur program recently used low-power optical phased array laser system to precisely hit a target four miles away. The test demonstrated the laser’s ability to to outperform legacy lasers with conventional optics and overcome the atmospheric turbulence which diminished the laser’s intensity at the target, the release said. Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are the prime system integrators for the Excalibur program.
Pehrson did not give a time line for the HEL integration, but he said it was not a capability which exists today and the company was not on contract to do any integration work.
In terms of the standard Avenger configuration, the Air Force will take delivery of its second Predator C unit in early 2015, Pehrson said. The aircraft was originally intended to be a follow-on to MQ-9 Reaper UCAV, but the Air Force has not formally pursued an MQ-X program.
A maritime variant of the Avenger, known as the Sea Avenger, is an entrant in the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike competition, and Canada is also considering buying the Avenger platform.
In an email in March, a service spokesman told ITAF the service only has one Avenger aircraft in its inventory and there is no “acquisition strategy/plan” to purchase a Reaper successor at this time. Pehrson said the Air Force’s new Avenger will be the fourth Predator C to be built by the company since the platform’s maiden flight in 2009. It was reported in 2011 that the Air Force was using the Avenger on operations in Afghanistan, however, Pehrson said the service is not currently deploying the Avenger operationally.
GA keeps some units in-house for flight testings and development. Pehrson said the most recent development effort is to integrate the Avenger with UTC Aerospace System’s new multispectral sensor, known as the Senior Year Electro-optical Reconnaissance System — a follow-on to the SYERS-2A carried by the Air Force’s U-2 spy plane fleet.
“We’re already underway on that as a demonstrator,” Pehrson said. “There’s no requirement but we’re going to demonstrate it.”
The Avenger represents a departure from conventional turboprop-powered Reaper and Predator aircraft. The Predator C is a faster and more maneuverable aircraft powered by a Pratt & Whitney turbofan engine. Like the MQ-9, the Avenger has hard points on its wings to carry precision-guided munitions, although the Avenger also has a 3,000-pound internal weapons bay and there is additional space in the nose bay. Depending on the weight and fuel load, the Avenger can fly for up to 18 hours at an altitude of 50,000 feet. “It still has a glider characteristic,” Pehrson said, “so it has a lot of persistence with speeds of up to 400 knots. You can reposition across the battlespace faster and it’s more responsive to pop-up threats.”
Whether the Air Force decides to pursue the Avenger as a next-generation Reaper depends on a number of factors, including the outcome of the Navy’s UCLASS competition and the details of a 25-year strategic document being unveiled by the service late last month.
“They’re taking a wait-and-see approach,” Pehrson said. “They don’t have the stomach right now for a new program start and it’s not a stealthy aircraft for a high-threat area.” He said the Avenger was designed to be more maneuverable and have a lower radar cross-section than legacy platforms.
Another area of development for the Avenger is its integration with airborne sense-and-avoid technology, similar to the efforts being undertaken by the Air Force with Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk platform. This sense-and-avoid technology is one of the main capabilities unmanned aircraft operators need to demonstrate before RPAs can be integrated with the National Airspace System. Without the technology, RPAs are unable to autonomously identify and avoid other aircraft.
In 2013, GA tested a prototype air-to-air Due Regard Radar system on a Reaper aircraft — a critical component of the company’s developmental sense-and-avoid system. Pehrson said the company is pursuing the technology as a way of building confidence in unmanned aircraft and to help it meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s requirements for RPA integration into the national airspace. — James Drew