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The Air Force is already looking at a third generation of armed remote-control planes even as it continues to build up its fleet of MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers.
The service has started an analysis of alternatives for the next unmanned aerial vehicle, dubbed the MQ-X, with the goal of choosing a plane in 2012, Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford told reporters Friday.
The Air Force wants enough Predators and Reapers to fly 50 around-the-clock patrols over Iraq and Afghanistan. There are now enough planes to fly 35 patrols, including one patrol by RQ-4 Global Hawks.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems builds Reapers and Predators. Because of the drive to deploy the planes, the Air Force and Defense Department did not put the project up for open bidding, instead depending on General Atomics' expertise.
Shackelford, one of the service's top acquisition officials, told reporters that developing and building the MQ-X likely will be open to all bidders.
"We would like to have competition as we go into the MX-Q," he said.
General Atomics has already unveiled a jet-powered UAV called the Avenger, able to fly at 460 mph — about twice as fast as the Reaper — and carry 3,000 pounds of weapons and sensors.