Unmanned air system manufacturers see new hope for near-term sales, despite the US Air Force's decision to delay fielding a replacement for the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper until at least 2018.

The company has launched a new marketing campaign that describes the stealthy, jet-powered Predator C Avenger as an "attrition-tolerant" alternative to the Lockheed Martin F-22 for certain high-risk missions, such as launching assaults on enemy air defences.

Aurora Flight Sciences, meanwhile, has re-started production of its Orion UAS after a hiatus caused by a government-wide budget freeze. The Orion fits into a different mission profile than the Avenger, with the propeller-driven design intended to demonstrate an unrefuelled surveillance endurance of five days.

Both projects are really aimed at filling niche missions in the near-term, while the air force finalises the requirements for its MQ-X programme.

Aurora and General Atomics "are trying to meet parts of the MQ-X requirement much faster," said John Langford, president and founder of the former company.

Multiple platforms could be acquired in the near-term that may eventually become adjuncts to a future MQ-X fleet, or meet the USAF's needs in the interim, if the new programme is further delayed, Langford said.

The air force originally planned to start replacing MQ-9 Reapers with the MQ-X as early as 2014, but budget constraints and requirement changes have pushed back that timeline.

Air force officials have not clarified the new schedule for launching MQ-X. Its long-term acquisition plans, however, assume that a new aircraft will enter production in 2017, after the last MQ-9 is delivered the year before.

But the idea of fielding cheaper and more capable alternatives to the air force's existing UAS fleet is gaining traction.

Last month, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) proposed several options for getting more capability for the $20 billion in the air force's 10-year acquisition plan for large UAS.

The CBO proposed a "notional aircraft" called the MQ-SX, and used performance statistics nearly identical to the Avenger. The aircraft could serve as a more capable alternative to the MQ-9, but in fewer numbers, its study showed.

Alternatively, the MQ-SX might provide a less capable replacement for the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, but for $3 billion less to deliver 24 aircraft.

Source: Flight International