Following Defence’s decision to down-select General Atomics MQ-9B ‘Sky Guardian’ as its preferred platform for the AIR 7003 project, Defence Connect will take a deep dive into the capability itself.
With confirmation that Defence is purchasing the 'Sky Guardian' over the MQ-9A variant, the next step is focusing on developing the MQ-9B acquisition proposal, which is scheduled for government consideration in 2021-22.
The federal government has spent just over a year deciding on which Reaper variant to purchase, with General Atomics selected mid-November last year to provide Australia's first remotely piloted aircraft system.
Australia will purchase between 12 and 16 of the aircraft.
Then minister for defence Christopher Pyne said at the time that the medium-altitude, long-endurance aircraft can be integrated within the Australian Defence Force and would be fully interoperable with our allies.
“These new aircraft will provide enhanced firepower and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to a range of missions,” Pyne said last year.
“Medium-altitude, long-endurance, remotely piloted aircraft have a far greater range than smaller remotely piloted aircraft and can continuously observe an area of interest for much longer than manned reconnaissance aircraft.”
The aircraft will be used to watch and protect ADF and coalition land forces, and provide reconnaissance support for search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.
“Remotely piloted aircraft allow military commanders to make more informed decisions faster whilst providing the option to conduct strike and reconnaissance operations without risking the safety of aircrew,” Pyne added.
“The aircraft will be operated under the same laws of armed conflict, international human rights law and rules of engagement as manned aircraft.”
Defence didn't rush the decision as they weighed up which variant of the Reaper they would purchase, saying that they would request pricing and availability data from the US on Reaper variants to support future decision-making on the acquisition.
RAAF observers were in attendance in August this year when General Atomics conducted flight and capability demonstrations of the 'Sky Guardian', which showed off the platforms new capabilities, including certifiable ground control station (CGCS), automatic takeoff, landing and taxi over SATCOM, portable pre/post-flight equipment (P3E), and the mission intelligence centre.
The showing reportedly impressed onlookers, especially Royal Air Force senior leadership, with the UK Ministry of Defence already committed to purchasing the 'Sky Guardian' as the baseline RPA that will become known as the Protector RG Mk1 once delivered to the RAF.
“This demonstration was a complete success and has really built our anticipation and excitement about our new Protector RPA to a whole new level,” RAF Protector RG Mk1 Programme Director Group Captain Lyndon Jones said following the showing.
“We witnessed some exciting technologies as part of the demonstration and we’re looking forward to incorporating these innovations into our fleet when we begin taking delivery of Protector in the early 2020s.”
The 'Sky Guardian' is also operated by the US, Italy, France, and soon Australia, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium.
Here are the technical specifications provided for the 'Sky Reaper' variant by General Atomics.
|Perform over-the-horizon long-endurance, medium-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.|
|Wing Span||24m (79 ft)|
|Length||11.7m (38 ft)|
|Powerplant||Honeywell TPE331-10 Turboprop|
|Max Gross Takeoff Weight||5670 kg (12,500 lb)|
|Fuel Capacity||2721 kg (6,000 lb)|
|Payload Capacity||2155 kg (4,750 lb) across
9 hardpoints (8 wing, 1 centerline)
363 kg internal (800 lb)
|Backup Power||2 kW|
|Max Altitude||40,000+ ft MSL|
|Max Endurance||40+ hr|
|Max Air Speed||210 KTAS|
|Max Range||6,000+ nmi|
|Over-the-Horizon||X-, Ku-, or Ka-Band BLOS
Backup Inmarsat SATCOM
|MQ-9B SeaGuardian Mission Kit: (Optional)
Operational history with Australia
Since 2015, the ADF has essentially been "hands-on" with the Reaper, after the RAAF sent over six personnel to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and Creech Air Force Base in Nevada to undergo training for the platform.
However, Australia has been involved with the aircraft since as early as 2006, when a General Atomics Mariner demonstrator aircraft was operated by the Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) in an exercise that aimed to evaluate the Reaper's ability to aid in operations such as combating illegal fishing, drug running and illegal immigration.
It wouldn't be till August 2015, however, that Australians began flying the platform in real operations, with the RAAF conducting operations with the Reaper over Syria.
Five RAAF personnel were deployed with the USAF 432d Operations Group, which operate Reapers.