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Avenger DroneThe Avenger (formerly Predator C), whose prototype flew its first flight in 2009, is operationally ready after a new round of tests completed last month, according to its maker, General Atomics. Based on the company’s more well-known MQ-9 Reaper drone, Avenger is designed to perform high-speed, long-endurance surveillance or strike missions, flying up to 500 mph at a maximum of 50,000 feet for as long as 18 hours.

Compared to its earlier prototype, Avenger’s fuselage has been increased by four feet to accommodate larger payloads and more fuel, allowing for extended missions. It can carry up to 3,500 pounds internally, and its 66-foot wingspan is capable of carrying weapons as large as a 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM).

Switching from propeller-driven drones to jets will allow the CIA to continue its Pakistan strikes from a more distant base, if and when the U.S. is forced to withdraw troops entirely from neighboring Afghanistan.

According to a recent Los Angeles Times report, the Obama administration is actively making contingency plans in Central Asia to continue its drone surveillance and missile attacks in northwest Pakistan, because current security arrangements with Afghanistan require U.S. military protection of CIA drone bases.

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged that defense and intelligence officials are scouting alternative bases for drones in the face of a withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

“Avenger provides the right capabilities for the right cost at the right time and is operationally ready today,” said Frank Pace, president of the Aircraft Systems Group at General Atomics, in a statement. “This aircraft offers unique advantages in terms of performance, cost, timescale, and adaptability that are unmatched by any other UAS in its class.”

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