Govt Announces MQ-9B Sky Guardian for AIR 7003

 In Afghanistan, Sea, Indo-Pacific, Australia, Air

The Commonwealth has announced the selec­tion of the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) MQ-9B Sky Guardian as its pre­ferred ver­sion of the Predator B for the RAAF’s Project AIR 7003 medium-alti­tude long-endurance (MALE) armed remote­ly pilot­ed air­craft system (RPAS) require­ment.

The Sky Guardian was pre­vi­ous­ly mar­ket­ed as the Certified Predator‑B, and forms the basis of the Protector RG Mk1 system being acquired for the UK’s Royal Air Force. The ADF select­ed the cer­ti­fied Sky Guardian over the sim­i­lar GA-ASI MQ‑9 Reaper Block 5 model which is common to that being acquired by the USAF.

“Cutting-edge tech­nol­o­gy of this kind, with advanced sen­sors and sys­tems, would com­ple­ment advanced air­craft such as the F‑35 Joint Strike Fighter and ensure that ADF main­tains state-of-the-art capa­bil­i­ty,” Defence Minister Senator Linda Reynolds said in a state­ment.

The Sky Guardian will be cer­ti­fied so that it may oper­ate in con­trolled air­space, an impor­tant capa­bil­i­ty for remote­ly pilot­ed vehi­cles in prox­im­i­ty to civil air traf­fic. To this end, GA-ASI is developing a ‘detect-and-avoid’ radar for the UK’s Protector pro­gram which will also be incor­po­rat­ed onto the Sky Guardian. The Reaper does not have a detect-and-avoid sensor, and is not intend­ed to be cer­ti­fied.

The long-await­ed announce­ment comes more than a year after the November 2018 Gate 1 announcement for AIR 7003, where the Sky Guardian and the Reaper were short­list­ed. The Gate 1 announce­ment itself came more than two years after Gate 0, and more than 18 months after the orig­i­nal­ly planned 2017 Avalon Airshow Gate 1 announce­ment was can­celled at the last moment fol­low­ing intense lob­by­ing and a renewed effort by Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) to pitch its rival Heron TP system.

No indi­ca­tion of in-ser­vice, ini­tial oper­a­tional capa­bil­i­ty (IOC) or final oper­a­tional capa­bil­i­ty (FOC) time­lines were given in the latest announce­ment, nor was the number of sys­tems to be acquired men­tioned. The 2016 Defence White Paper and Integrated Investment Plan indi­cat­ed between 12 and 16 sys­tems would be acquired.

ADF air vehi­cle oper­a­tors have been train­ing and oper­at­ing on exchange with USAF oper­a­tional Reaper units at Creech AFB and Holloman AFB in the US since February 2015.

The RAAF retired its first unmanned system – the IAI Heron I – in 2017. The RAAF leased three Herons from Canadian com­pa­ny MDA in late 2009 under Project Nankeen to meet an urgent oper­a­tional require­ment to pro­vide sur­veil­lance sup­port to Australian and coali­tion troops in Afghanistan, and these were with­drawn to Australia in 2014.

The armed MALE capa­bil­i­ty will be co-locat­ed at RAAF Edinburgh near Adelaide with other key ADF ISR assets such as the P‑8A Poseidon, the Project AIR 7000 Phase 1B MQ-4C Triton high-alti­tude long-endurance (HALE) mar­itime ISR, the AIR 555 MC-55A Peregrine elec­tron­ic war­fare sup­port air­craft, and the AIR 3503 Distributed Ground Station (DGS-AUS) intel­li­gence unit which is respon­si­ble for the analy­sis of data col­lect­ed from the var­i­ous RAAF ISR plat­forms.

But while the ground con­trol seg­ment, sup­port and sus­tain­ment force, and train­ing facil­i­ties will be locat­ed at Edinburgh, it is yet to be deter­mined whether the MQ-9B air vehi­cles will actu­al­ly be based at Edinburgh or, more likely, at a remote loca­tion such as Woomera.

The min­is­te­r­i­al state­ment said the next phase of the project will ‘focus on devel­op­ing the MQ-9B acqui­si­tion pro­pos­al, which is sched­uled for gov­ern­ment con­sid­er­a­tion in 2021−22’. Quite what this state­ment means is unclear – it could be the def­i­n­i­tion of what sen­sors, weapons and other sys­tems the RAAF’s Sky Guardian will carry, or it could be the pro­gres­sion to con­tract sig­na­ture with GA-ASI…or both.

The UK’s Protector RG Mk1 will fea­ture sen­sors and com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems of European origin so that it may better inte­grate with other sys­tems in ser­vice in that region. Australia will likely have a require­ment for its Sky Guardians to inte­grate sen­sors and other sys­tems that are more inter­op­er­a­ble with those oper­at­ed by the US and other Indo-Pacific region­al part­ners.

To this end, GA-ASI has assem­bled a com­pre­hen­sive group of Australian indus­try mem­bers to not only sus­tain the system in ser­vice, but to devel­op and inte­grate Australian-spe­cif­ic capa­bil­i­ties for the system.

“Local com­pa­nies that pro­vide a range of inno­v­a­tive sensor, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, man­u­fac­tur­ing and life-cycle sup­port capa­bil­i­ties will have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to show­case their capa­bil­i­ties through­out this devel­op­ment process,” Minister for Defence Industry Melissa Price said in a state­ment. “Australian defence indus­tries are world-class and are extreme­ly well-placed to be involved in projects like this.”

Announced in 2017, ‘Team Reaper’ com­pris­es GA-ASI, Cobham, CAE Australia, Raytheon Australia, Flight Data Systems, TAE Aerospace, Rockwell Collins, Ultra Electronics Australia, Airspeed, and Quickstep Holdings Ltd.

A USAF Reaper Block 5. While the Reaper’s air­frame and TPE331 engine are essen­tial­ly the same as the Sky Guardian, the latter fea­tures extend­ed wingtips, greater inter­nal fuel capac­i­ty, and dif­fer­ent sen­sors and com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems. (USAF) Source: ADBR

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