The Air Force has bought a new hunter-killer aircraft that is the fastest and largest armed drone in its fleet.
The Avenger, which cost the military $15 million, is the latest version of the Predator drones made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., a San Diego-area company that also builds the robotic MQ-9 Reapers for the Air Force and CIA.
The new radar-evading aircraft, also known as the Predator C, is General Atomics’ third version of these drones. The Air Force picked up only one of them, strictly for testing purposes.
“There is no intention to deploy the aircraft in the war in Afghanistan at this time,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Jennifer Cassidy.
The Avenger represents a major technological advance over the other Predator and Reaper drones that the Obama administration has increasingly relied on to hunt and destroy targets in Central Asia and the Middle East, defense industry analysts said. It may be several months — even years — away from active duty, but the Avenger represents the wave of the future, said Phil Finnegan, an aerospace expert with the Teal Group, a research firm.
“As the U.S. looks at threats beyond Iraq and Afghanistan — where it has complete air dominance — it needs aircraft that are going to be stealthier and faster so they won’t be shot down by enemy air defense,” Finnegan said.
With a length of 44 feet and a maximum takeoff weight of 15,800 pounds, the Avenger can carry more weaponry than its predecessors.
The Reaper, for example, is 36 feet long and has a maximum takeoff weight of 10,500 pounds. The largest bombs it carries weigh 500 pounds and hang from its wings.
The Avenger, on the other hand, has an internal bomb bay like other modern fighter and bomber jets. It was designed to carry 2,000-pound bombs, as well as missiles, cameras and sensor packages.
Both the Reaper and Avenger have 66-foot wingspans and can reach a maximum altitude of about 50,000 feet.
The Reaper can stay aloft for 30 hours at a time –- 10 hours longer than the Avenger. But with the power of a turbofan engine, the Avenger’s top speed is about 460 mph, much faster than the propeller-driven Reaper’s 276 mph.
The Avenger is considered one of the contenders to replace older Predators and Reapers. It’s also likely to be in the running for the Navy’s upcoming carrier-launched drone program.
General Atomics builds its drones in 10 buildings in Poway. The sprawling complex harks back to an era when Southland aerospace pioneers such as Lockheed Aircraft Co., Douglas Aircraft Co. and North American Aviation built aircraft from start to finish, manufacturing nearly all of the components in-house.
The company first flew the Avenger in April 2009 at the company’s Gray Butte Flight Operations Facility in Palmdale. David A. Deptula, a retired three-star general who focused on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance during his career in the Air Force, said the military would check out how detectable the Avenger is when faced with radar. The military will also test the aircraft’s weapon delivery system and its overall performance in a simulated battle environment.
“They’re going to test out all of its capabilities before they make a commitment to buy more,” he said.