February 13, 2012: STRATEGY PAGE
A second prototype of the jet powered Avenger UAV recently made its first flight. This version is slightly larger, being 14.2 meters (44 feet) long. This allows for more fuel and a larger bomb bay. Total payload is now 1.6 tons. The new version can stay aloft for up to 16 hours. The U.S. Air Force is planning to use Avenger for reconnaissance and strike missions.
The original Predator C (now called Avenger) took its first flight in early 2009. Development of the Avenger began a decade ago. The first flight was supposed to have been five years ago but there were technical problems that kept coming up. Apparently it was worth the wait, as the U.S. Navy was impressed and particularly interested in using Avenger to replace the soon-to-be-retired EA-6Bs in their most dangerous attack missions. The air force likes the ability to arm Avenger with a smart bomb, including the 900 kg (2,000 pound) GBU-34 penetrator version. Avenger also has two hard points on each wing, each one able to carry up over 200 kg (440 pounds).
The original Avenger was a little shorter, at 13.2 meters (41 feet) long, but both versions have the same 20.1 meter (66 foot) wingspan, and the same stealthy shape. The V shaped tail and smooth lines of the swept wing aircraft will make it difficult to detect by radar. There is a humpbacked structure on top of the aircraft for the engine air intake. Avenger appears to be a larger jet powered version of the five ton Reaper (Predator B). The 4,800 pound thrust engine is designed to minimize the heat signature that sensors can pick up. Original payload was 1.36 tons (3,000 pounds) and total weight of the aircraft was nine tons. The new version is closer to ten tons. Cruising speed is 740 kilometers an hour. Each Avenger costs about $15 million.
All this attention to stealth should be no surprise. The Avenger manufacturer, General Atomics, has a division devoted to building stealth features into aircraft. This includes the world's largest indoor radar cross section testing facility. Despite the bomb bay the Avenger is expected to be used primarily to carry ground surveillance radar, which could be mounted on the bottom of the aircraft in an aerodynamically smooth enclosure.
The U.S. Navy has been interested in Avenger since the beginning of development. Thus the Avenger wings can be built to fold for use on carriers, and have a tail hook needed for carrier landings. The Avenger, unlike the larger Global Hawk, can operate from carriers. The Avenger uses landing gear from the F-5, an aircraft of the same weight class. The naval version is now called the Sea Avenger.
The Avenger is expected to deliver about 85 percent of the performance of the Global Hawk at less than half the price. The Avenger is designed to fly high (up to 20,000 meters/60,000 feet) and cross oceans. Until 2009 the Avenger didn't officially exist and was a "black" (secret) program.
The U.S. Air Force has had lots of problems with the manufacturer of the Global Hawk, and much less hassle with the builder of the Avenger, Reaper and Predator. So now the Avenger is poised to take some sales from Global Hawk.
Most of the cost of these "strategic UAVs" is in the space satellite grade sensors. The 13 ton MQ-4B Global Hawk has a wingspan of 42.3 meters (131 feet) and is 15.5 meters (48 feet) long. With minimal electronics the RQ-4B costs about $40 million. But you can easily add over $60 million worth of satellite grade gear to either a $15 million Avenger or a $40 million Global Hawk. Thus Global Atomics is trying to come up with a lot of improved features (more reliable, easier to maintain, cheaper to run) for their Global Hawk competitor.
The navy, and several air forces, are also looking at the Avenger as an ELINT (electronic intelligence) aircraft. The ability to carry a ton of sensors and stay in the air for twenty hours per sortie has a lot of appeal for an aircraft that is already stealthy and doesn't carry a pilot. Moreover, the Avenger can perform ELINT missions entirely autonomously, making it more difficult to detect. General Atomics believes it can get the Sea Avenger to operate (takeoff and land) from a carrier before any of the other contenders (mainly the 19 ton X-47). The Avenger weighs less than half as much and has an exemplary track record, making this a race the Avenger might just win.