General Atomics beats Northrop as programme for extended-range/multipurpose mission is expanded dramatically

The US Army has selected the General Atomics Warrior unmanned aircraft for the extended-range/multipurpose (ER/MP) requirement, and has more than doubled the planned order from 60 to 132 aircraft.

The Northrop Grumman team’s bid based on the Hunter II lost, but the company may seek to reduce the programme in the future by offering the new MQ-5B Hunter as an in-service alternative.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has received a $214 million contract to complete a two-year development programme for the Warrior, which is based on the US Air Force MQ-1B Predator and US Army I-GNAT-ER UAVs.

The army plans to field the first of 11 planned Warrior systems, which include 12 vehicles each, in 2009. The Warrior is able to stay airborne for 36h, cruising at 25,000ft (7,600m). With a 365kg (800lb) payload, the Warrior will carry an electro-optical/infrared sensor, a General Atomics Lynx synthetic-aperture radar and a communications relay device.

The aircraft is also set to carry four Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, but the army so far does not have approval to arm the fleet.

The ER/MP was originally planned to be a corps-level asset, with five unmanned systems for a total of 60 aircraft. However, the army has expanded the programme to become a division-level capability, so each of its 10 divisions will be equipped with one ER/MP system. Another full system will be assigned for the army’s training school.

The programme’s expansion was announced as part of the contract award, but army officials declined further comment during a 15-day period in which Northrop is allowed to appeal against the decision.

Although the army has nearly doubled the size of the programme, it has not increased the total programme acquisition cost. The estimate remains $1 billion, which was obtained as part of a budget re-programming approved by Congress in late July.

The army now operates about 35 RQ-5A Hunters that have similar payload capacity, but about one-third of the Warrior’s promised endurance. Eighteen MQ-5Bs, upgraded to 15h endurance and equipped to carry weapons, have also been ordered. Northrop completed the first flight of the MQ-5B the day after the ER/MP contract was announced.

Mike Howell, Northrop’s Hunter programme manager, was asked if the MQ-5B could compete against the Warrior in the future. He replied: “Once people get a chance to see how well they do, some people may ask that question.”


Source: Flight International