The first quarter of the 21st century has unfortunately proved one constant from the previous one: The world isn’t getting any safer.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine confirms that unpredictable major-power behavior isn’t a relic of the past. This reality imposes a fundamental awareness on nations’ citizens who cherish freedom and democratic principles that being prepared for threats is a perpetual responsibility.
That’s why the United States and its friends, allies and partners must remain poised to act, which fundamentally requires information dominance. Decision makers must be armed with clarity as to what potential adversaries’ forces are doing, in what strength, and with what likely intentions. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance provides the foundation to provide the necessary awareness to potentially deter action or, if necessary, deliver actionable intelligence.
If that hasn’t changed, though, nearly everything else has.
The new world
What became truth in the late last century has only become more validated in this one—failure to dominate with intelligence across all domains places a nation at a great disadvantage.
World events, crises and potential battlefields don’t segment nicely into separate domains in the way they once did, sliced conveniently into one mission for a general in a green uniform, another for an admiral in a navy, a general in blue or another in khaki.
Today and tomorrow are about multi-domain operations – about ISR aircraft that might belong to a landpower service helping to spot targets out at sea for shore-based anti-ship missiles … about enabling networks for friendly naval, ground and air units from different services, or different nations, in an area in which an adversary is trying to deny satellite connectivity … about providing early warning about enemies’ attempts at anti-access and area denial … and much more.
The MQ-9B SkyGuardian and its sibling SeaGuardian are the hub of these kinds of operations, or the spokes, or both. Built by the world leader in UAS, the San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., MQ-9B is unlike any other aircraft and not only enables broad-spectrum multi-domain operations today but is unlocking whole new concepts of operation for the near future.
SkyGuardian and SeaGuardian
This starts with the aircraft itself: the SkyGuardian and SeaGuardian descend from the most proven fleet of combat UAS in history, including the iconic RQ-1 Predator and legendary MQ-9 Reaper, which with other variants have logged more than 7 million operational hours, many of them in combat. That means the underlying structures and aircraft systems are, above all, proven.
A great deal, however, is new. MQ-9B has more room for payloads – with eight wing hardpoints and one under its centerline – that can range from weapons to intelligence-gathering equipment to specialized sensors. A maximum capacity of around 4,750 pounds means users anywhere, from armed forces to coast guard agencies to other clients, can easily integrate whatever loadouts they require for their specific missions.
SeaGuardian, for example, can carry a maritime search radar and monitor wide areas of surface activity. It might use its onboard electro-optical infrared sensor or its Lynx multi-mode radar to take a closer look at individual vessels of interest, if desired.
But that’s only scratching the surface.
SeaGuardian also can hunt for submerged submarines; the aircraft can release sonobuoys, which drop into the water to locate contacts. MQ-9B has demonstrated its undersea searching prowess in exercises with the U.S. Navy and international partners and is scheduled to do so again in the summer of 2022 in the international Rim of the Pacific naval exercises of Hawaii.
Multi-mission payloads and MUM-T
Anti-submarine warfare is just one example of a core strength of the MQ-9B: as a stable, long-flying platform for a multitude of military and civilian missions. If advanced users need to accomplish something, there’s probably a payload for it.
MQ-9B has signals intelligence and communications intelligence systems integrated onboard, but it can take any number of other custom sensors as necessary.
Communications relays, or area bandwidth links? Yes.
Electronic attack? Yes.
A threat-warning detection and countermeasure capability like that of a 4th generation tactical aircraft? Yes. The Self-Protect Pod enables an MQ-9B to release flares or chaff in case it has been illuminated by an air defense radar or infrared sensor.
These capabilities are potent whether an MQ-9B is operating on its own, in concert with other UASs, or supporting manned aircraft. Manned-unmanned teaming is a core enabler for multi-domain operations, and no aerospace or defense player leads in it better than GA-ASI.
In U.S. Air Force and other demonstrations, human crew members have proven how simple it is to task an autonomous aircraft to join real and virtual wingmen to search for threats, and then for those unmanned units to assess among themselves which one is best to react when one is detected.
Beyond military and intelligence missions
MQ-9B’s utility also ranges well out of a naval, military or intelligence role.
UASs have shown time and time again over the Western United States how valuable it is to incident commanders and coordinating officials to be able to see through smoke and haze, in high definition, in full color, as major firefighting efforts proceed.
Additional ecological applications include infrastructure security, forest-cover monitoring, strip-mining oversight, wildlife tracking, monitoring maritime hazards such as spills, and more. What the MQ-9B provides is a proven, stable air platform for virtually limitless applications that can stay airborne for more than 30 hours. That can include supporting other, smaller aircraft for specialized missions.
It all works through state-of-the-art aerospace technology, software, artificial intelligence and autonomy, placed under the supervision of human service members. Enabling the team to execute seamlessly is as important as developing the hardware itself, and that’s another area in which GA-ASI is the world leader.
Highly automated systems make today’s UAS simpler than they’ve ever been to operate and integrate with human-crewed platforms; a single operator can control an entire flight of unmanned aircraft and route or task them collectively or individually if necessary. This kind of supervised autonomy will only grow more important in the most sophisticated multi-domain operations, as aircraft do ever more of the flying and mission operations for themselves.
Adding those kinds of capabilities to American and allied operations across multiple domains will enable more options and decision space for commanders. UAS like the MQ-9B will remain at the heart of many major operations.
It’s not science fiction. It’s not a PowerPoint brief about things that may happen, or the goals of a program with decades more to pay off. The capabilities shown by the MQ-9B, from its endurance, to its ISR, to its payloads, to its integration with other UAS and manned platforms, all are real, proven, and available now. Today.