The Air Force recently issued a contract notification that it would be retrofitting MQ-9A Reaper Block 5 aircraft with the extended range (ER), beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) and Barrett Asymmetrical Digital Datalink Computer (payload multiplexer) modification kits, for which these modified aircraft are required to fly with a Block 30 Ground Control Station.

Air Force officials told C4ISRNET that the service is planning to modify all active Reapers to the extended-range configuration, which has involved wing-mounted fuel tanks to allow the aircraft to stay aloft longer than its current 24-hour endurance time.

A spokeswoman from Air Combat Command said this update is no different than others and combines several retrofits into a single, more efficient one.

A spokesman from Air Force Materiel Command said this award modifies 122 Reapers, adding that requirements for ER, BLOS, and stations 1 and 7 payload multiplexing are part of the service's current capability road map for the entire MQ-9 fleet.

When asked to clarify, they said this includes all aircraft, including the Block 1, and work is still underway to complete these retrofits on Block 1 Reapers.

The Air Force currently fields Block 1 and Block 5 Reapers. The MQ-9 Block 5 aircraft are about 75 percent common to Block 1 aircraft, with the newer versions providing upgraded communications, avionics, electrical power and capabilities improvements, according to a service spokesman. No future blocks are currently planned and there are no plans to phase out Block 1.

According to the Defense Department’s annual reportfrom the office of the director of operational test and evaluation, the contractor for the Reaper, General Atomics, delivered the last of 195 Block 1 MQ-9s in the second quarter of fiscal 2015 after which the company transitioned the production line to Block 5. The report noted that as of the third quarter of fiscal 2016, total Air Force MQ-9 deliveries included 207 of 350 planned aircraft, which includes Block 1 and Block 5 combined. General Atomics will deliver the final Block 5 aircraft in fiscal 2021.

DOT&E’s report also outlines that the Air Force designed the Block 5 aircraft to incorporate improved main landing gear, an upgraded electrical system with more power, an additional ARC-210 radio, encrypted data links, a redesigned avionics bay and digital electronic engine control system, the BRU-71 bomb rack, high-definition video, and upgraded software to allowing the two-person aircrew to operate all on-board sensors and systems.

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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