MQ-9B SkyGuardian. Photo Courtesy of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.

Where are hostile and allied forces operating? In what strength? Where are they heading? At what speed? With what intentions? Who else – from fishing vessels to commercial airliners – is in the area?

Without answers to these and similar questions, no nation can craft the correct use of its own forces and the best way to employ them together alongside their allies. That’s why such insights are non-negotiable, and the systems that can provide them are invaluable – all the more in the vast air and maritime environments of the Western Pacific, East and Southeast Asia.

The MQ-9B SkyGuardian and its maritime-focused sibling, the MQ-9B SeaGuardian, are ideal for serving as the hub of the wheel, the spokes, or as any other parts of a nation’s operational network. These aircraft, built by the U.S. defense and aerospace company General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., are the most sophisticated of their kind flying today, and ideal for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions that are the foundation for so many of the other capabilities of today’s advanced governments.

The military applications of unmanned aerial systems such as the MQ-9B are manifold and well known: with an unprecedented endurance of up to 40 hours based on configuration, the aircraft deliver persistence unlike anything else and make possible operations that couldn’t take place any other way. Naval, coast guard, customs, border, fisheries enforcement and many other operations are transformed.

Indeed, they might all be transformed by the same single aircraft on one single mission.

Picture an MQ-9B taking off from an air station not far from the coast of a nation in the Western Pacific. The aircraft might have a dedicated mission to support the operations of its navy, and be equipped with a maritime search radar or other payloads to that end. Or it may simply be outbound for a routine patrol flight, one that could involve any number of sub-tasks, as needed.

Versatile Sensors

The SeaGuardian’s versatile onboard sensors mean that it could survey what’s taking place over the border of a neighboring country from the safety of its own or from international airspace; it could observe the vessels in littoral or coastal areas to provide high-quality maritime domain awareness for the navy or coast guard. And it can then make its way over the open ocean.

With more than a day’s worth of flight time, commanders or other users can redefine their understanding of what’s taking place over a given section of water or through an important strait. The aircraft might fly a long orbit that enabled it to monitor all the vessels that passed through a given area. Or it might be assigned to follow one of interest, to learn more about it or see where it traveled.

Working in teams with other aircraft, the MQ-9B means that a nation virtually never has to break away from surveillance or tracking. Another SeaGuardian might take off and relieve the previous one, preserving contact with the target of interest. That same MQ-9B can also interoperate with manned aircraft, ships or submarines, providing a force multiplier of immeasurable strength.

The aircrafts’ powerful electro-optical infrared sensors provide high-definition, full-motion video of the target vessel during the day or night. Its onboard multi-mode radar enables synthetic aperture radar images in any conditions, including even through rain or clouds. And its ability to monitor a ship’s Automatic Identification System means it can check what they’re broadcasting – if they are – against what the aircraft itself sees.

Smugglers often turn off AIS when they are trying to pass covertly through certain waters, but that ploy doesn’t work with the SeaGuardian. It can read the name off the stern of a ship, if necessary, or show its operators, in real time, exactly how a vessel is configured and what it is doing. That means no vessel can get away with pretending to be a pleasure craft when it’s really trawling in restricted waters, for example.

It also means that no two ships can try to rendezvous to transfer cargoes – oil that violates international sanctions, for example, or other contraband such as drugs – without SeaGuardian being able to watch exactly what’s going on.

Other applications are endless: Is there a vessel overloaded with people attempting to make its way toward a nation’s coastline? Are human traffickers or other smugglers attempting a clandestine approach to the coast? Is there a ship broadcasting a distress call that must be located quickly, and its condition, the presence of lifeboats, and other emergency data briefed to the coast guard to prepare a rescue?

The MQ-9B can handle it all and much more, especially when equipped with a growing and international library of sophisticated payloads: communications relays, specialized surveillance or other equipment, and more. The aircraft that took off yesterday for a standard maritime patrol might launch the following day configured for a different mission, following a simple change-out at its home station.

The value of this persistence and flexibility is particularly pertinent in the Indo-Pacific, where lines frequently blur between official, quasi-official and unofficial actors across the domain, but especially at sea. A clutch of fishing vessels trolling their nets today could take on a mission tomorrow with military or security implications, which is why it’s so important to be able to keep tabs on them, if necessary, for long stretches of time. Surveillance might deter them from acting – or, at the very least, detect it immediately.

Persistent & Flexible

High-quality sensing and long endurance aren’t the only features that make the SeaGuardian so versatile. The aircraft also carries a first-of-its-kind Detect and Avoid System, developed by GA-ASI, that enables it to integrate with the normal flow of aviation traffic like any other aircraft.

Other, earlier remotely piloted aircraft needed special accommodations from airspace authorities, or human-flown observation aircraft to look out for them, or other such arrangements. MQ-9B’s onboard sensors, however, mean that its pilots in a remote ground station can get a view from their virtual cockpit similar to the one they might have onboard. So they can keep aware of other aircraft, stay in touch with air traffic controllers, and remain well clear.

A weakness of manned aircraft is how fast the information collected can be put in front of decision makers. With the MQ-9B, that information is available “real time” at the ground control station and can be simultaneously made available to a commander’s cell phone, desktop or laptop. Imagine the power of your decision maker watching a smuggling interdiction on his or her cell phone, occurring at that very moment, from a thousand kilometers away.

MQ-9B SkyGuardian. Photo Courtesy of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.

The SeaGuardian also offers huge advantages over traditional aircraft in terms of its carbon footprint and fuel savings. The MQ-9B needs only a fraction of the fuel consumed by older-model, human-crewed patrol aircraft.

MQ-9B’s many unique advantages were what prompted the U.K. Royal Air Force to select it as its flagship Protector patrol aircraft. British and European crews put a Protector through its paces in a series of intense operational evaluations in the summer of 2021 that highlighted its versatility and the real-world performance of the Detect and Avoid System.

Those flights followed demonstrations by GA-ASI of other capabilities available nowhere else in the aerospace world: One manned-unmanned teaming demonstration put a heavily autonomous MQ-20 Avenger under the command of a human pilot in another aircraft using a tablet computer. Another saw an MQ-9 equipped with anti-submarine and other equipment operate alongside warships of the U.S. Navy. A third MQ-9 demonstration saw the aircraft loiter in Arctic airspace above the 78th parallel, a latitude generally out of satellite reach for unmanned aircraft systems.

Several other governments, including those of Australia, Belgium and more, also are buying MQ-9B to gain these capabilities.

The SeaGuardian has proven itself in tests and demonstrations in Asia, off the West Coast of the United States, over British and European waters and in the Mediterranean. So it’s not only an ideal platform for Indo-Pacific nations – it’s ready today.

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