General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, makers of the Predator and Reaper drones so beloved of the US armed forces, launched a jet-powered model back in 2009. The Predator C, or ‘Avenger‘, was developed as an internal company venture, using their own money, rather than being funded by the US government. It had a rather shorter endurance than the earlier models, but was considerably faster, and had stealth features incorporated into its design. It offered an internal weapons bay with a capacity of up to 3,000 pounds of ordnance, which could also be used to carry a ‘semi-submerged, wide-area surveillance pod‘.
There have been few announcements about the Avenger since then. It’s been offered to the US Navy as a carrier-borne drone, the so-called ‘Sea Avenger‘. One example was bought by the US Air Force for trials, and it’s been suggested (but never proved) that several were bought by a three-letter-acronym agency of the US government for unspecified duties. Your guess about that is as good as mine.
The very lack of information about Avenger is intriguing. If the program were still being funded only out of corporate resources, it would surely have been dropped a long time ago, because such aircraft are very expensive to develop. Therefore, the ongoing activity about it suggests that external funding is available; and that, in turn, suggests some very high-powered interest in it.
This week, that was compounded by an announcement from General Atomics.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has announced completing first flight of an extended range Predator C Avenger on 27 October, which features wings extended by 3.2m to 23.2m (76ft).
The extended-range variant of the jet-powered Avenger has kept its 13.4m (44ft)-long fuselage and 1,360kg (3,000lb) payload bay, but GA-ASI also added about 1,000kg of fuel, extending the platform’s endurance from 15h to 20h.
. . .
Meanwhile, GA-ASI is investing [internal research and development] funds into the power, thermal management, beam control and beam director for a high energy laser weapon compatible with the Avenger. The company could begin integrating the laser package onto the platform by 2017.
There’s more at the link. Bold print is my emphasis.
This puts a whole new perspective on the Avenger program. An extended-endurance model, carrying a laser? Hmmm . . . Dispatched from (for example) a South Korean or Japanese airfield, an Avenger is fast enough to reach a North Korean ballistic missile launch facility within a relatively short time. Its stealth features would enable it to orbit without being detected (at least at night), and within laser range of the facility. If North Korea were to launch a ballistic missile, the laser would be able to hit it during the initial boost phase, when it was still moving slowly and was a relatively easy target. Even without a launch, the laser might be able to destroy critical infrastructure at the site, rendering it unusable.
Such a capability would effectively nullify North Korea’s ability to strike other nations . . . and that’s just the beginning of what such a weapons system could do. How about launching it from a carrier, to shoot down incoming anti-ship missiles at long range? How about sending it over the territory of an enemy state, to shoot down aircraft as they try to take off? How about deploying it over the Persian Gulf to take care of ‘swarming’ missile- or gunboats, such as those deployed in the hundreds by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard? A laser can fire as often and as rapidly as its power supply allows, and isn’t constrained by magazine capacity. The possibilities are as extensive as the imagination of those deploying the Avenger.
I suspect that rather more than just ‘internal’ research and development funds are behind this program. This will bear watching carefully.