Leading this change is the MQ-9B SeaGuardian, which is being showcased at EuroNaval this month in Paris. Scott Smith, Regional Vice President, Europe at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., talked about the many important and novel aspects of the aircraft.
GA-ASI conducted a series of capability demonstrations of SeaGuardian in Europe last year. But more recently, SeaGuardian was featured at the international Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022 exercise – known as RIMPAC.
Twenty-six nations, 38 surface ships and more than 30 unmanned systems all took part in the simulated combat and other operations in the Pacific off the coast of Hawaii over the summer (Jul-Aug 2022). MQ-9B was at the center of the international exercise.
SeaGuardian can stay airborne longer than any crewed aircraft, giving maritime and defense commanders a capability that can perform missions they wouldn’t be able to accomplish any other way. With endurance that’s measured in days, the aircraft can search huge sections of ocean, keeping track of targets – groups of surface vessels or submarines.
SeaGuardian participated in more than 15 missions totaling more than 100 flight hours.
The aircraft took off and landed automatically over satellite and used its electro-optical/infrared sensor to positively identify targets at long range. It used its synthetic aperture radar to feed detailed surveillance to other units, and it used its suite of intelligence and networking equipment to nest deeply within the secure communications and operations of the sprawling exercise.
The SeaGuardian hunted for submarines, conducted long-range targeting, collected electronic intelligence, managed radar tracks, and more over many hours of long-endurance operation above the ocean.
SeaGuardian also has the ability to dispense up to 40 “A”-size sonobuoys or 80 “B”-size sonobuoys and then is able to monitor them with its onboard sensors and pass submarine track information to other members of the anti-submarine warfare system-of-systems, which GA-ASI demonstrated in exercises with the U.S. Navy, Smith says.
These aircraft also are unmatched when teamed with other units, whether aircraft like the P-8A or other civil surveillance platforms.
RIMPAC proved again that this aircraft is mature in its ability to deliver cost-effective patrolling over a wide area of ocean or an important strait, or over land, to provide constant awareness about what’s taking place in the area on or below the surface.
The importance of payloads
Naval application is just one instance of the way in which remotely piloted aircraft systems are endlessly adaptable to the needs of users. For virtually any need, there is a payload – for example, the new NATO Pod that GA-ASI has developed with SENER Aeroespacial.
This enables national governments that operate MQ-9 aircraft to incorporate sovereign communications or surveillance payloads using a single common pod already developed and approved for use on the aircraft. That saves significantly on the time and cost that would otherwise be incurred if an air force wanted to field its own communications capability hardware and a new enclosure to carry it under the wing of the aircraft. With the NATO Pod, operators can focus on the mission equipment given that the aerospace engineering work already has been completed.
Operating remotely piloted aircraft is about more than the aircraft, though. To realize their full potential, these systems must be as easy to fly as possible and integrate into the operations of other units. This is called “manned-unmanned teaming,” and it’s another area in which GA-ASI is the leader.
Ease of use, ease of collaboration
Smith highlights the System for Tasking And Real-Time Exploitation, also known as STARE, a software product that compiles and presents the critical surveillance information gathered by the remotely piloted aircraft. It improves user experience while decreasing personnel requirements.
This is critical because it means operators don’t need to devote more people than necessary to fly MQ-9B and interpret and exploit the intelligence it produces. That not only saves on personnel costs; it increases the speed of action from when the system detects something to when operators can take action.
It also integrates intelligence from sources beyond the aircraft: STARE rapidly exploits and correlates data collected from RPA, commercial satellites, and other sources into an easily shared common operational picture.
Having multi-source correlated data enables automatic detection of anomalous behaviors, such as dark vessels, ship-to-ship transfers, and Economic Exclusive Zone violations. STARE will help users secure resources, deter conflicts, and give us safer conditions in any domain.
Although MQ-9B SeaGuardian is the main focus of this month’s EuroNaval presentations by GA-ASI, Smith says it’s far from the only important new capability in the works. Others include a family of highly autonomous new collaborative combat aircraft, a game-changing new multi-mode radar, and much more, including a transformational new line of aircraft capable of short takeoff and landing.
With unmanned aircraft, the traditional expectation might have been that users could have a highly capable one with a large payload suite – but it would need a big, conventional air base with a long, paved runway – or a small, nimbler one with less utility but better suited to austere conditions.
No more. GA-ASI’s new Mojave series aircraft, named for the lead system in the range, give special operations forces, navies, and other high-demand users a highly capable system with the flexibility of short takeoffs and landings.
It will redefine expeditionary and austere forward-basing operations with its ability to launch and recover without the need for typical airfields or infrastructure. That can apply to a lot of missions where STOL capability will increase the number of mission sets available to Mojave, potentially including ship-based options, in a version called MQ-9B STOL, unlocking naval missions or sea-based support to land forces.
GA-ASI has been showcasing Mojave to various customers privately and discussing the potential it offers in expeditionary environments, Smith says – and the feedback so far has been very exciting.