EXCLUSIVE: General Atomics is secretly flying a new, heavily armed drone – Breaking Defense

A new General Atomics drone prototype, whose existence was first reported by Breaking Defense, shares common DNA with the extended range MQ-1 Gray Eagle pictured here. (General Atomics)

DUBAI: General Atomics has built and flown a prototype of a deadly new drone with significantly more firepower than the US military’s current unmanned aircraft inventory, including the capability to launch a whopping 16 Hellfire missiles.

The unmanned aerial system — whose existence has not been previously been reported — made its first flight this summer at the company’s Desert Horizon test grounds in the Mohave Desert, two sources with knowledge of the program told Breaking Defense.

General Atomics spokesman C. Mark Brinkley declined to comment on this story.

The new drone, which was funded with internal investment funds, features key enhancements meant to make it more suitable to operate in austere conditions. It needs less than 800 feet to take off or land the aircraft, making it possible to launch and recover it from rough airfields, dirt roads, dry riverbeds, or possibly even onboard ships, one source said.

Its maximum payload of 16 Hellfire missiles is double the MQ-1C Grey Eagle’s Hellfire loadout, and four times as much as the typical number carried by the MQ-9 Reaper.

The new drone’s design borrows heavily from the extended range version of the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, the sources said, but has noticeably longer wings. It also features avionics and other capabilities — like automated takeoff and landing — taken from other General Atomics platforms.

A source acknowledged that arming the aircraft with a full load of 16 Hellfires will take a toll on the aircraft’s endurance, while cutting down on space, power and cooling for sensors or other mission systems. However, the company believes that shortfall is overcome by the drone’s ability take off closer to a conflict and quickly launch some of its missiles, thus dropping weight from the aircraft and lengthening the time it can stay in the air.

“If you can take off from anywhere and rapidly reload, it changes your endurance,” the source said. “As you’re unloading ordinance, you actually are extending your time [on station].”

The name and designation of the new drone have not been disclosed, but General Atomics intends to roll out photos and specifications of the system by the end of the year, the sources said.

General Atomics has not begun discussions with the US military or potential international customers about the drone yet. The system was designed with Army’s Future Command and Special Operations Command in mind — particularly SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch program — and could also be a natural fit for the Marine Corps or any other expeditionary force, the source said.

However, it remains unclear whether the aircraft will find an interested customer with the US military, as there is no direct path to procurement for the aircraft.

SOCOM notably did not pick any unmanned systems when narrowing its field of potential Armed Overwatch competitors to three manned aircraft: the Textron AT-6E Wolverine, L3Harris AT-802U Sky Warden, and Sierra Nevada Corporation M28/C-145 Wily Coyote, according to Aviation Week. But one source said General Atomics believes SOCOM could re-evaluate its pool of contenders after seeing the capabilities of the new UAS.

Meanwhile, there is no existing Army program of record for a more expeditionary successor to the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, though General Atomics is hopeful that the new drone will be able to meet emerging Army requirements.

The company has also tailored the new drone to fill capability gaps from potential international customers like the Italian navy for shipboard operations, the source said. It could also be a good fit for countries like Indonesia and the Philippines that may be operating in islands without developed airfields or paved runways.