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US industry gears up for Reaper replacement with focus on long-range, strike

Artists concept of General Atomics uncrewed aerial vehicle potential contender for the U.S. Air Force MQ-Next program (Source: General Atomics)

A collection of US defence contractors are lining up to provide the US Air Force with a replacement for its MQ-9 Reaper series of UAS, with the focus shifting to low-observability, ultra-long-range ISR and, of major interest to Australia, strike capabilities.

A collection of US defence contractors are lining up to provide the US Air Force with a replacement for its MQ-9 Reaper series of UAS, with the focus shifting to low-observability, ultra-long-range ISR and, of major interest to Australia, strike capabilities.

Deterrence theory is as old as warfare and international relations. While the methods have changed throughout history, the concept and doctrine remains constant, albeit significantly more lethal. 

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In the contemporary context, deterrence is best broken down into two distinct concepts as identified by US academic Paul Huth in his journal article 'Deterrence and International Conflict: Empirical Findings and Theoretical Debates', which states that a policy of deterrence can fit into two distinct categories, namely:

  1. Direct deterrence: Preventing an armed attack against a state's own territory; and
  2. Extended deterrence: Preventing an armed attack against another state. 

The advent of nuclear weapons and strategic force multiplier platforms like aircraft carriers, ballistic missile and attack submarines and long-range strategic bomber aircraft, supported by air-to-air refuelling capabilities, fundamentally rewrote the rules of deterrence capabilities. 

Australia has enjoyed the benefits of extended deterrence provided by the global reach and capability of the US since the end of the Second World War and, in particular, following the end of Vietnam and the nation's shift towards a policy of continental defence. 

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However, the changing geo-political, strategic and economic reality of the Indo-Pacific and the emergence of peer and near-peer competitors across the region has served to undermine the qualitative and quantitative edge long enjoyed by the US and allies like the UK, Australia and Japan. 

For Australia in particular, the introduction of the 'Defence of Australia' doctrine directly impacted the force structure and platform acquisition of the Australian Defence Force, as defending the nation's northern approaches and the vaunted 'sea-air gap' became paramount in the minds of strategic and political leaders alike. 

"Until the late 1960s, Australian defence planning and policy assumed that our forces would normally operate in conjunction with allies, and well forward of the continent. We saw our security inextricably linked with the security of others," author of the 1986 Dibb report, Paul Dibb, explains. 

This doctrine advocated for the retreat of Australia’s forward military presence in the Indo-Pacific and a focus on the defence of the Australian continent and its direct approaches effectively limited the nation's capacity to act as an offshore balancer. 

A key component of this policy was Australia's acquisition and long-term operation of the F-111 strike platform, originally pursued to replace the ageing Canberra bombers during the Vietnam War, and introduced in 1973 served as a linchpin of Australia's post-Vietnam force posture, doctrine and force structures. 

The increasing proliferation and reliability of autonomous and uncrewed aerial combat vehicles (UCAV) provides an interesting option for serious consideration and implementation for armed forces seeking to maximise their tactical and strategic capabilities.

While much of the development has been focused on providing persistent close air support and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for ground forces during the campaigns in Afghanistan, the return of great power rivalry is prompting a major rethink for the US Air Force, with a number of defence contractors preparing to replace the capable, yet vulnerable MQ-9 Reaper series UAS/UCAV. 

Enter the long-range, stealth, ISR/strike package

As peer competitors, namely Russia and China, continue to introduce increasingly sophisticated integrated air defence networks, the US Air Force has raised serious concerns about the survivability in contested battle zones, prompting the branch to begin a shift away from the platforms towards an entirely new beast. 

The US Air Force request for information (RFI) released in early June details the specifics of what they are looking for and describes a markedly different platform to the MQ-9 and its predecessor, the MQ-1 series of UAS: 

"With the MQ-9 platform planning for end of service life, a need to identify a solution that continues to provide for this demand is imperative. The purpose of this RFI is to research potential solutions for the Next Generation UAS ISR/Strike platform, the Next Generation Medium Altitude UAS and potential follow-on program to the MQ-9 weapon system."

While the US Air Force is already well into the development phase of its next-generation strategic bomber, the B-21 Raider, currently under development by Northrop Grumman, it seems that this proposed platform will fill a niche role, with overlapping tactical and strategic deterrence roles. 

Entering the race to build the proposed UCAV are a range of major defence contractors, each drawing on decades of research, development and program experience developed to support broader US military requirements. 

General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have all entered the fray with the 'flying wing' designs, while Boeing and Kratos have responded to the solicitation but are yet to provide any details about their proposals. 

Dr Will Roper, the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, used a virtual round table at the Air Force Association’s 2020 Virtual Air, Space and Cyber conference with industry partners and journalists to detail the varying scale of the proposals and partners identifying interest, explaining that a family of platforms may be more effective and efficient to operate. 

In particular, Dr Roper explained that a conventional 'high-low' mix of platforms, with the 'high' end focused on penetrating strike and reconnaissance missions, with the 'low' end platforms being drawn from commercial drone manufacturers, with a COTS option to minimise attrition and survivability costs. 

Now, what does this mean for Australia? It has been well publicised that since the retirement of the F-111 the nation has lacked a serious, long-range strike capability and, while the government has committed to rectifying this capability gap, at least in some part, the gap remains. 

Addressing the capability gap? 

A key component of this policy was Australia's acquisition and long-term operation of the F-111 strike platform, originally pursued to replace the ageing Canberra bombers during the Vietnam War and introduced in 1973, which served as a linchpin of Australia's post-Vietnam force posture, doctrine and force structures. 

Mike Scrafton raised some interesting points in his piece for ASPI, 'Strategic strike, deterrence and the ghost of the F-111', in which he discusses the impact the F-111 platform has had in shaping Australia's current tactical and strategic force structure, doctrine and the role the mythos of the platform is playing in shaping current and future requirements. 

Australia's own long-range aerial strike force is not alone in its growing obsolescence, as the US Air Force struggles to maintain enough strategic bombers in fighting condition and the UK's Royal Air Force lacks any significant aerial long-range strike capability since the retirement of the Avro Vulcan strategic bombers.

This is exemplified by former US Air Force vice chief of staff, General (Ret’d) John Loh, who has identified the key challenges facing America's declining bomber force as a result of ageing airframes, shrinking budgets and the narrowing qualitative and quantitative gaps between American and peer/near-peer competitor platforms. 

"America’s bomber force is now in crisis. In the Air Force’s fiscal 2021 budget request, one-third of the B-1 fleet is set for retirement, B-2 survivability, modernisation is cancelled and the new B-21 is at least a decade away from contributing significantly to the bomber force. The venerable B-52 requires new engines and other upgrades to be effective," Loh explains, setting the scene. 

"The number of bombers are at their lowest ever, but demand for bombers increases every year, particularly in the vast and most-stressed region of the Indo-Pacific. Bombers are the preferred weapon system there because of their long range and huge payload capacity."

While the US is pushing forward with its development and acquisition of the next-generation B-21 Raider strategic bombers, developments in unmanned and autonomous systems, particularly platforms like Lockheed Martin's RQ-170, BAE's Taranis, Northrop Grumman's X-47B and Boeing Australia's Boeing Air Power Teaming System (BATS), provide some interesting avenues for development. 

There has been a growing conversation within both Australian and American strategic policy and defence industry ecosystems seeking to support the development of an Australian long-range strike capability, leveraging America's B-21 program. 

Collective allied capability

Enter Thomas Mahnken, president and CEO of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), who has penned a piece for DefenseNews, titled 'Six ways the US can maximise its strategic benefit from defense spending', in which he sets out a number of powerful points for consideration within the US defence establishment, but one with a uniquely Australian flavour. 

Mahnken cites the wildly growing research and development costs associated with a number of next-generation platforms fielded by the US, which has resulted in a smaller acquisition and increased unit costs, namely the F-22 Raptor development and acquisition program, with similar examples able to be made, including the B-2 Spirit and Seawolf Class attack submarines.  

In order to resolve these challenges, Mahnken believes that spreading research and development costs, combined with including export options from the beginning of the development phase, would enable greater cost savings and flow on economic benefits for the US defence industrial base as a result of increased acquisition and sustainment numbers. 

"Finally, the United States should take every opportunity to promote arms exports, which both create jobs and increase the security of our allies. Much more should be done to increase the speed and predictability of the arms export process," Mahnken states. 

"In addition, with few exceptions, US weapons should be developed with export in mind. We should avoid a repetition of the case of the F-22 aircraft, which was designed from birth never to be exported."

Turning his attentions to Australia, Mahnken sees growing support from within Australia's strategic policy community for the acquisition or lease of the B-21 Raider as a perfect opportunity for both nations to collaborate and support mutual tactical and strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific.

Mahnken articulates, "We need to learn from the past in developing the next generation of weapons. For example, in recent months, Australian defence analysts have discussed the attractiveness of the B-21 Raider stealth bomber for Australia’s defence needs.

"Export of the B-21 to a close ally such as Australia, should Canberra so desire, should be given serious consideration."

Such an acquisition would not only serve to fill the long-range strike capability gap Australia has experienced since the retirement of the F-111, but equally support the US recapitalise its own fleet of ageing strategic bomber platforms at reduced unit costs, while promoting greater interoperability with a key regional and global ally. 

However, as previously mentioned, Australia is not the only US ally that will require a credible long-range aerial strike capability, as both Russia and China continue to enhance their own advanced integrated air defence, fifth-generation fighter and strategic bomber capabilities, with the Royal Air Force a prime candidate for joining an allied collaboration program. 

The costs associated with acquiring and sustaining even a moderate number of B-21 platforms would serve as a cost prohibitive proposition for both the Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force – however, this doesn't mean developing a smaller, unmanned or semi/autonomous aerial long-range strike platform is without its merits. 

The precedent already established by the collaboration between Defence Science and Technology and Boeing on the development of the BATS concept provides avenues for Australia to partner with defence industry primes and global allies to develop a long-range, unmanned, low observable strike platform with a payload capacity similar to, or indeed greater than, the approximately 15-tonne payload of the retired F-111.

The US has developed increasingly capable long-range, low observable unmanned platforms, including the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel; the highly secretive Northrop Grumman RQ-180 high-altitude, long-endurance, low observable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft; and Northrop Grumman’s X-47 series of carrier-based, low observable strike platforms.

While the details of the platforms proposed by General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Kratos remain sketchy, there is clearly a base within industry to draw upon and work collaboratively with key allies to develop a common, interoperable platform to the benefit of all.  

Your thoughts

Australia’s air force modernisation, exemplified by the multibillion-dollar acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, is not being done in isolation, with lessons to learn by both the RAAF and USAF.

Many throughout Indo-Pacific Asia are embarking on their own air power modernisation and recapitalisation efforts, incorporating advanced fighter aircraft, long-range strike aircraft and advanced command and control and aerial refuelling capabilities.

Enhancing Australias capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australias sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.

Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce issued a relevant challenge for Australia's political and strategic policy leaders, saying, "If we observe that the level of debate among our leaders is characterised by mud-slinging, obfuscation and the deliberate misrepresentation of the views of others, why would the community behave differently ... Our failure to do so will leave a very damaging legacy for future generations."

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.

We would also like to hear your thoughts on the avenues Australia should pursue to support long-term economic growth and development in support of national security in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  

US industry gears up for Reaper replacement with focus on long-range, strike
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