Twenty years after the U.S. first deployed it over Bosnia, the state of world affairs has only reinforced the utility of the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) Predator UAV and its successors. While several nations now operate or plan to operate the larger MQ-9 Reaper or the Predator XP international variant, the Asia Pacific region beckons as a potential growth market for GA-ASI (Stand R81).
“There’s a need there for cost-effective, long-endurance maritime surveillance, ever more so with the disputed islands and disputed territorial claims of a variety of countries,” said Christopher Ames, GA-ASI director of international strategic development. The solution the manufacturer offers would be a maritime version of the MQ-9 similar to the Guardian UAV the U.S. Department of Homeland Security operates.
With a standard, 66-foot wingspan, the Guardian has an endurance of 27 hours in clean configuration; fitting the aircraft with external fuel pods would boost endurance to 35 hours, or with a longer wing to 40-plus hours, said Ames, a former U.S. Navy rear admiral. The aircraft accommodates the Raytheon SeaVue or Selex Seaspray maritime surveillance radars.
“We think it’s a top contender for that region for the purpose of maritime surveillance,” Ames told AIN during a visit to GA-ASI’s facility in Poway, California. “The maritime domain is a key focus throughout the littorals in the Asia Pacific region, and we have a product that can satisfy the needs at a great price point.” He identified the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Australia, as “pretty much those nations that have an interest in better surveillance of the maritime domain.”
GA-ASI’s aircraft systems business unit moved to the Poway site from its original location in the San Diego community of Rancho Bernardo in 2009. Previously, the Poway site had been occupied by Toppan Optical Products, a manufacturer of rear-projection television screens. The facility hosts two MQ-9 Predator B and two MQ-1C Gray Eagle assembly lines. GA-ASI also produces three generations of ground-control stations, the latest of which it calls the Advanced Cockpit, which provides a 120-degree field of view and hands-on throttle and stick control. “This is really a revolutionary cockpit [with] a wraparound screen,” Ames said. “It presents a synthetic horizon of whatever you want–180 degrees or 270 degrees. The purpose behind this is to make it easier for the pilot to focus on mission execution.”
At the time of AIN’s visit in December, the Poway facility was producing four Predator Bs and two Gray Eagles per month, with surge capacity to produce eight and five of those aircraft, respectively, executives said.
Rancho Bernardo remains home to GA-ASI’s mission systems business unit, which produces the Lynx multi-mode radar and integrates other payloads. The manufacturer conducts flight and customer acceptance testing at three desert sites, including two in the Mojave Desert northeast of Los Angeles: Grey Butte, for the Predator B and Pratt & Whitney PW545B turbofan-powered Predator C Avenger; and El Mirage for the Gray Eagle. Testing of the Predator XP takes place at Castle Dome Army Heliport near the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.
Recent developments suggest that GA-ASI’s order book will only grow. In December, the U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command announced a series of recommendations stemming from a study it conducted of its remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) needs “in an attempt to normalize operations and ensure long-term mission success.” Among those recommendations, the command called for increasing the number of RPA crewmembers by 2,500 to 3,500 airmen, more than doubling the number of MQ-1/MQ-9 squadrons from eight to 17, adding a new wing and expanding the number of RPA bases.
The Air Force’s plan “highlights the value of the capability of persistent situational awareness,” said Ames. “You can make the battlefield transparent and have a deep competitive advantage because you can use fewer forces against specific targets to greater effect. We see [the plan] as a validation of the benefits derived from persistent situational awareness, the force multiplier effect. Of course the company will be making more Reapers–that’s a wonderful thing.”
Under a quick-reaction capability tasking, GA-ASI delivered more than 40 MQ-9 Reaper ERs to the Air Force with external fuel pods that increase the aircraft’s endurance from 27 to 35 hours. The manufacturer said the service first fielded the Reaper ER last August. As of September, the Air Force reported an inventory of 93 Reapers, which can be armed with a combination of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II and GBU-38 joint direct attack munitions.
In October, GA-ASI announced that it was awarded a full-rate production contract from the U.S. Army to deliver 19 Improved Gray Eagle (IGE) aircraft by September 2018. Already, the manufacturer has delivered 11 interim “Block 0” and 133 Block 1 Gray Eagles to the Army. The IGE version has an increased maximum gross takeoff weight of 4,200 pounds (compared to 3,600 pounds), with a “straight-belly” design that allows for 850 pounds of internal fuel load and a centerline hard point that can accommodate an optional fuel pod, enhancements that ramp up its endurance to nearly 40 hours.
The need to train RPA pilots has grown in parallel with the increased tempo of U.S. unmanned aircraft operations. In September, GA-ASI announced that it would build an RPA training academy at a business and technology park co-located with Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. The training academy, which GA-ASI expects to open this year, will act as a “shock absorber” to help train both U.S. and foreign military sales customers, Ames said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron in October revealed his country’s plan to acquire 20 new “Protector” UAVs beginning in 2017-2018 to replace the 11 Reapers GA-ASI has delivered to the UK. Though the Protector type was not immediately identified, Ames said it will be the “Certifiable Predator B” that GA-ASI is designing to NATO airworthiness standard. “That was wonderful news as well,” he said of Cameron’s announcement. “That gives [the UK] a type-certified aircraft, so it will be able to access national airspace.” The new variant will have a longer, 79-foot wingspan and more than 40 hours of endurance.
In December, France’s defense procurement agency placed an order for a third MQ-9 Block 5 aircraft through the foreign military sales process. The Block 5 variant has a standard 66-foot wingspan, with increased power-generation capability, an open-system architecture to accommodate “sovereign” payloads, and new landing gear to support an increased gross takeoff weight. Spain, GA-ASI’s fourth European customer after the UK, France and Italy, will acquire four Block 5 Reapers by 2020. Italy won U.S. government approval last year to arm its unmanned fleet, which consists of six MQ-9 Reapers and nine MQ-1 Predators.
GA-ASI will begin delivering the unarmed Predator XP this year to its launch customer, the United Arab Emirates. Designed to provide “persistent” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, the enhanced export variant based on the Predator A is fitted with the General Atomics’ Lynx radar, high-definition electro-optical/infrared cameras and an automatic identification system for tracking ships. Interviewed during the Dubai Airshow in November, Frank Pace, president of the GA-ASI aircraft systems group, said the manufacturer was promoting the Predator XP to multiple countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.
The manufacturer has not overlooked the Asia Pacific region. Last summer, it signed a teaming agreement with Cobham Aviation Services to support MQ-9s already being operated by the UK Royal Air Force “as well as future RPA opportunities in Australia.” Royal Australian Air Force pilots started training on the Reaper in the U.S. last February.
In November, GA-ASI announced that the U.S. Army had earlier conducted a first manned-unmanned teaming exercise at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, with the MQ-1C Gray Eagle and an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter.