Recent reporting by Breaking Defense1 and The War Zone2 announced that General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc (GA-ASI) is developing a new unmanned aerial system (UAS), known as Mojave. The development of this UAS was internally funded, instead of under contract like earlier platforms. This article will cover the history leading up to this new UAS, the methodology for identifying the airframe, and covering some details of the UAS in comparison to other GA-ASI remotely-piloted aircraft.
The ER/MP Program
The US Army cancellation of the RAH-66 Comanche in 2004 led to 14 billion USD being made available in the Army budget, leading to the eventual creation of the Extended Range/Multi-Purpose (ER/MP) program: searching for a replacement of the RQ-5 Hunter3. At the same time, the US Air Force was working on expanding their Predator program, which looked to fulfill the same purpose as ER/MP. The Army selected GA-ASI's MQ-1C Warrior in August 2005 as the source for the ER/MP program, which led to two unique aircraft designated as MQ-1C (Air Force and Army) for the same role4. In September 2007, the Deputy Secretary of Defense released a memorandum requiring that the Predator and Sky Warrior programs be combined into a single acquisition program. Both organizations' failure to comply with this memorandum led to 115 million USD in costs and over 400 million USD in lost savings5 6. In 2010, Air Force decided to transition to an all-Reaper fleet, ditching the Predator entirely, zeroing out all procurement funding for Predator in their FY2010 budget. Army continued to pursue the MQ-1C Sky Warrior, changing the designation to "Gray Eagle" in August 20107.
Over time, the Gray Eagle showed poor reliability, with a DoD Developmental Test and Evaluation and Systems Engineering report in FY2011 stating that the MQ-1C Increment 1 UAS met "3 of 7 [Key Performance Parameters]" and "continue[d] to fall short of predicted growth"8. Soon after, on July 26, 2013, GA-ASI announced the flight test of the "Improved Gray Eagle" (IGE), which intended to solve the existing issues with the Gray Eagle9. In 2015, the Army issued a contract to GA-ASI to order the IGE, which soon after became known as "Gray Eagle Extended Range"10 (Gray Eagle ER).
The new Mojave UAS is known to be based on the Army MQ-1C Gray Eagle ER. Knowing this, we can find more information about the airframe that has been used for testing. Through a brief examination of Army documents11, we can determine that the National Stock Number for the Gray Eagle ER is 1550-01-648-0888, which can be matched to a GA-ASI model number of UWA97000-2012.
In FAA's aircraft database, there are only two aircraft models listed as "UWA97000": UWA97000-1 and UWA97000-50, the first of which being the two Sky Warrior test airframes N20321 and N2025G. UWA97000-50 is associated with only one airframe, N450MV, which has the Rolls-Royce M250 as an engine, matching the GA-ASI product datasheet for Mojave. This alone is enough to propose that N450MV is the Mojave test airframe, but further proof is required.
This new UAS named "Mojave" is designed to take off on runways between 400 and 1,000 feet in length (depending on load) and carry a maximum load of 16 AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, versus the MQ-9A Reaper’s maximum load of 8 Hellfires, and the MQ-1C Gray Eagle’s maximum load of 4. FAA paperwork and GA-ASI’s official datasheet differ on the matter of maximum gross take off weight: the most recently published paperwork (September 16, 2021) says 4,600 pounds, while GA-ASI’s Mojave datasheet says 7,000 pounds. This indicates either a change in design or perhaps a more conservative estimate for the official paperwork. The FAA paperwork states that the maximum altitude of Mojave is 25,000 feet, 4,000 feet lower than that of the MQ-1C Extended Range at 29,000 feet. It is entirely likely that this maximum altitude figure has changed between the publication of the paperwork on September 16th and the announcement of Mojave. The base model Gray Eagle needs a minimum of 4,500 feet of runway in order to take off13, more than 10 times the 400-foot figure given for the minimum runway length for Mojave. Mojave carries the Rolls-Royce M250-B17F engine, and it is also equipped with five propeller blades, both features setting it apart from other remotely piloted aircraft in GA-ASI’s product line.
The aircraft has flown multiple times out of El Mirage Flight Test Facility, in Adelanto, California, the site of many of GA-ASI's flight tests. The first test flight took place sometime after July 15th and before September 16th: the exact date was unable to be determined with open-source means. According to the FAA, Mojave test flights are allowed to be conducted with captive carry "weapons", which are inert mass simulators in the shape of a Hellfire.
Breaking Defense reports that Mojave was designed with Army Futures Command and Special Operations Command uses in mind, with an eye on potential special forces applications. It is (or will be, soon) capable of automated take-off and landing, requiring less equipment in the field to support it. Despite the lower maximum altitude, Mojave has improved potential for special operations over its predecessors due to its automated takeoff and landing and shorter runway length requirement, allowing it to be used closer to battle. The Mojave program's future seems interesting, and attention should be paid towards foreign and domestic procurement, as well as potential upgrades.