By Andrew McLaughlin
This article appeared in the Nov-Dec 2019 issue of ADBR.
The Commonwealth announced on November 28 the selection of the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) MQ-9B Sky Guardian as its preferred version of the Predator B to meet the RAAF’s Project AIR 7003 requirement for an armed medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS).
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-9A Reaper Block 5 model which is common to that currently 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 the 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 (IIP) indicated between 12 and 16 systems would be acquired.
The IIP also notes that new facilities at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland will support the introduction of the armed UAS, while new fixed facilities will be built at RAAF Base Townsville to support the capability.
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.
With Australia winding down its presence in Afghanistan in 2014 Defence elected to extend the lease on two Herons for operations in Australia, initially for a further six years at a cost of $120 million. But Defence subsequently negotiated an early cancellation of that lease.
Between January 2010 and November 2014 RAAF Herons flew over 27,100 hours in support of operations in Afghanistan, while between April 2015 and June 2017 the two Herons based in Australia flew a further 710 hours. The two Australian-based Herons were mostly flown from Woomera in South Australia, but operated from RAAF Base Amberley, and from Rockhampton Airport during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2015.
Because the Heron I didn’t have a sense-and-avoid sensor, special operating regulations had to be established for the duration of the exercise. To this end, an agreement was signed by the RAAF’s Surveillance and Response Group (SRG) and Airservices Australia to set out procedures for Airservices and the RAAF to work within to allow the Heron to be safely flown in civil airspace without any significant impact on civil air traffic.
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 the November 28 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.