The MQ-9 Reaper has seen extensive service in the Middle East. Capable of carrying four AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and two guided bombs, the drone has proven invaluable to the US military and deadly to thousands on the ground.
But weighing over 10,000 pounds, the UAV has a crucial limitation: it requires a runway for both takeoff and landing, limiting its versatility.
To solve this problem, Bell Helicopter Textron is turning to the Osprey tiltrotor design to develop a drone that combines the Reaper’s lethality with the Osprey’s ability to operate from sea or land without access to a runway.
"I think there is a big need for a UAS [unmanned aerial system] that can go aboard the sea base," Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, Marine deputy commandant for aviation, told Breaking Defense.
"General [Robert] Neller says he doesn’t need a Reaper, but he needs a Reaper-like capability that can go from the sea base. This is what Bell is proposing."
Bell’s design is similar to the V-280 Valor, a third-generation manned tiltrotor currently under development.
"The normal sea base operates about a 12-hour day flight ops. What I’d like to be able to do is, when I’m getting ready to secure flight ops, launch one of these beauties and it’s refuelable," Davis enthused.
"It could be out there protecting the ship, protecting the fleet, giving up the deep view out there of the battle space when I don’t have manned platforms up."
While it remains to be seen if the Pentagon will actually purchase Bell’s design once it is complete, the need for the aircraft is partially driven by competition with the US Army.
"The Marine Corps does not have a Special Operations Aviation Regiment like the Army does," one officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Breaking Defense.
"I sense a lot of desire from the traditional ground component of the Marine Corps to support special operations, much like the US Army Rangers. Having a higher-tier UAS part of that."
Developers could face unexpected difficulties in designing a tiltrotor drone. According to Davis, any new UAS would need to be compatible with the shared network of the F-35. The fifth-generation fighter doesn’t have the best track record.