Air Marshal (Retd) Geoff Shepherd served as the Chief of Air Force from 2005 until 2008. Here, he explains why the SkyGuardian’s flexibility and simplicity make it ideal for the ADF – and create problems for its adversaries.
In November 2019, the government announced the selection of the MQ-9B, which is manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI). The MQ-9B system is being acquired via the US Foreign Military Sales process with the first aircraft delivery expected in the mid-2020s. The UK’s RAF is the first customer for the advanced MQ-9B and is cooperating closely with the RAAF for this capability.
Project Air 7003 was first endorsed through the Defence White Paper 2016 and confirmed through the 2020 Defence Update and Force Structure Plan (FSP). Endorsement of the project through FSP2020 provides an assurance that Air 7003 and the MQ-9B will meet not just the contemporary requirements envisaged for support to future land and littoral operations, but it opens the vast multi-role and multi-domain potential for the MQ-9B system to meet Australia’s changing and challenging strategic environment.
The MQ-9B was selected because it provides considerable improvements over the MQ-9A Reaper currently operated by the USAF and other militaries. The new aircraft is built for adverse weather performance with lightning protection, damage tolerance, and a de-icing system. The MQ-9B features rapid integration of new payloads with nine weapon/payload pod hard points. The aircraft can self-deploy using SATCOM-enabled automatic take-off, landing and taxi, which eliminates forward-based launch-and-recovery equipment and personnel. Not only does this simplify operations, it also expands the number of potential bases it can use. This capability provides commanders more flexibility and greatly complicates problems for potential adversaries in knowing where an MQ-9B might launch from and where it might later land.
GA-ASI’s MQ-9B meets the stringent NATO STANAG-4671 and UK DEFSTAN 00-970 aircraft system airworthiness requirements. The MQ-9B design accommodates a Detect and Avoid System (DAAS), which helps the aircraft integrate with the normal flow of aviation traffic and keeps operators in contact with air traffic control. The ability to safely fly an RPA in civil airspace means it can take on many more roles and missions than earlier models could and operate out of additional airfields.
The baseline SkyGuardian is equipped with a multi-mode radar capable of operation in land, littoral and maritime environments, a powerful electro-optical and infrared system, a highly capable electronic surveillance system, and a diverse range of communications and data links. This grouping of advanced systems and sensors creates one of the most powerful and versatile ISREW systems available to advanced military operators.
In addition to the SkyGuardian configuration, the MQ-9B is available as the SeaGuardian – with revolutionary anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and surface-search capabilities – for maritime domain dominance missions. Other important developments relevant to the future strategic environment and “mission resilience” include a self-protection system for operations in contested airspace – a system which further expands the MQ-9B’s versatility for assured ISREW operations – deployable Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (SUAS), and the implementation of automation and artificial intelligence for RPA operations and for processing, exploitation and analysis activity.
Through Team SkyGuardian Australia, the MQ-9B will offer a range of manufacturing and through-life support and development opportunities for Australian industry. The opportunity for development of advanced indigenous payloads and processing in particular offers significant potential for Australian industry during future development cycles.
The MQ-9 series of RPA systems have built an enviable reputation for ISREW and strike missions in the Middle East and other theatres with US Forces. Australia’s RPA operations in the Middle East employed Army SUAS and Shadow systems, and contracted operations using ScanEagle and Heron 1 systems. These operations provided vital lessons and a sound basis for future RPA employment in other theatres. These lessons, along with the strategic guidance contained in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, highlight the requirement for a multi-role, multi-domain Armed MALE RPA (AMR) system that can operate across a wide spectrum of operations, spanning grey-zone to high-end warfare throughout the region.
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The envisioned Australian MQ-9B SkyGuardian offers a highly versatile and cost-effective platform that can contribute to the “shape-deter-respond” requirements of the future warfighting environment. The aircraft’s comprehensive ISREW, networking and strike support capabilities offers unprecedented capabilities for integrating into Land Force battlefield and Long Range Fires networks, including teaming with the AH-64E Apache; teaming with platforms including the P-8A Poseidon, MC-4 Triton and MC-55 Peregrine; and with potential for teaming with maritime surface and airborne platforms for anti-surface and anti-submarine operations. For grey-zone operations where ISREW will be vital and ISREW assets will be in high demand and likely in short supply, the multi-domain, multi-environment capabilities of the MQ-9B would prove invaluable.
With Middle East operations having significantly reduced, USAF MQ-9 operations have already pivoted to the Indo-Pacific, including a focus on maritime and near-peer operations. Exercising and equipment modifications have been undertaken to optimise for these operations, including a configuration called MQ-9 Multi-Domain Operations (M2DO).
In parallel to the US pivot to the Indo-Pacific, GA-ASI has experienced a significant demand from several US Allies for maritime and multi-domain capabilities. To highlight this demand, US Congressional Notifications have been issued for the sale of the MQ-9B to Taiwan and the UAE, and additional multi-domain MQ-9B sales are anticipated. Multi-domain and maritime operations have been trialled over the past 12 months in Japan, and by the US Navy during an Integrated Battle Problem exercise, in which ASW, unmanned teaming, over-the-horizon-targeting, and Link-16 networking were a focus. India continues to announce its intention to acquire at least 30 MQ-9Bs.
An MQ-9B SeaGuardian operated from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands in August-September 2021 to complete a series of operational capability demonstrations and participate in Exercise Joint Warrior, which demonstrated the platform’s advanced maritime ISREW and ASW capabilities.
In summary, the MQ-9B will provide much needed ISREW and strike support capability for land and littoral operations when introduced from the mid-2020s. It has inherent capability to support multi-domain operations across the spectrum of warfare, as outlined in the Defence Strategic Update 2020. Through further enhancements to the Air 7003 system configuration, including those that can be provided through Team SkyGuardian Australia, the RAAF MQ-9B SkyGuardian’s multi-domain, multi-environment potential, particularly for roles including EW and ASW, can be even further enhanced. With delivery of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian planned for the mid-2020s, and initial and final operational capability even later, one may question whether Australia is acquiring this capability soon enough? Are there ways to accelerate delivery of the capability and can our acquisition process deliver the system earlier to meet the growing demands of Australia’s rapidly evolving strategic environment? And if the full multi-domain capabilities of the MQ-9B are pursued by Australia, will just 12 of these platforms be sufficient?
Air Marshal (Retd) Geoff Shepherd AO is a former Chief of Air Force and consults for GA-ASI.
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