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Air Force sets up framework to continue purchases of Reaper drones

Maintainers from the 9th Aircraft Maintenance Unit and an operator from the 29th Attack Squadron work to recover a MQ-9 Reaper during Exercise Agile Reaper at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, Calif., Sept. 12, 2020.

COLLETTE BROOKS/U.S. AIR FORCE

By MIKE FREEMAN | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: October 1, 2020

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the Poway-based maker of Predator/Reaper family of military drones, has been awarded a U.S. Air Force contract potentially worth $7.4 billion that aims to speed up the delivery of the unmanned aircraft, if needed.

The five-year Agile Reaper Enterprise Solution (ARES) contract is not a task order for production of drones. Instead, the indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity award sets up a streamlined framework that cuts delivery time to the Air Force and foreign partners.

"Prior to ARES, the standard contract award timeline was roughly 380 days," said Alicia Morales, aircraft production manager with the Air Force's Medium Altitude Unmanned Aerial System Program Office, in a statement. "Now, once we have a budget and it's in our account, we can award in just a couple of days and field the aircraft in 26 months."

With its Predator drone platform, General Atomics has been the global leader in military unmanned aircraft for more than a decade. Its drones have been widely used for surveillance, reconnaissance and attack missions in the Middle East. The Reaper is the armed version of the Predator.

Recently, the Air Force has been looking to upgrade its arsenal to the next generation of unmanned aircraft as it prepares for sophisticated future threats beyond the armed insurgencies in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

General Atomics remains in the hunt to develop these next generation drones with new capabilities, but there is a more competition now from a variety of defense contractors.

The company announced in August that it was laying off 6 percent of its workforce across locations nationwide, including 105 in San Diego, according to a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) filing with state and local employment officials.

Earlier this year, a senior acquisitions executive said the Air Force would stop buying new Reapers after the 2020 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. The move was opposed by some lawmakers, and the ARES contract, awarded in mid-September, appears to leave the door open for future Reaper purchases.

ARES has a pre-negotiated $3.3 billion price-quantity-curve. This curve allows the Air Force and foreign partners to unilaterally order between four and 36 aircraft a year under pre-set terms.

"ARES is a big deal because it answers the 'mail' as far as how do we deal with hard-to-predict demand signals from our international partners and enable increased responsiveness to U.S. budget dynamics," Morales said. "So, the team came together and figured out the best and most innovative approach to deal with unplanned requirements, so no matter what comes, we are prepared and able to handle it."

Foreign military sales partners will be allowed to order the NATO exportable version of the Predator/Reaper. The United Kingdom will be the first customer to receive the unmanned aircraft, with Belgian Defense also expected to buy the drones.

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