STOL Predator/Sky Guardian Variant Attracts Emirati Interest

 - February 27, 2023, 11:39 AM
A potential Emirati Predator B/Sky Guardian would feature locally-produced weapons and the recently developed broad-chord STOL wing. (Photo: General Atomics)

Preliminary approval is understood to have been granted for an Emirati acquisition of General Atomics Predator B unmanned combat air vehicles, and the order could be for a new variant of the aircraft. This follows the apparent deferral of a long-planned acquisition of armed Predators for the United Arab Emirates. 

The UAE first ordered the Predator XP remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) in 2013. The XP—known locally as the RQ-1E—is an unarmed derivative of the proven RQ-1 Predator A aircraft with an automatic take-off and landing system, triple-redundant avionics, and a more efficient propulsion system. The U.S. refused to supply armed variants, so the UAE purchased armed Chinese Wing Loong IIs. These proved less than satisfactory, having to operate in concert with the unarmed RQ-1Es, whose sensors are vastly superior.

On November 10, 2020, the U.S. State Department approved three possible foreign military sales to the UAE, covering the potential supply of F-35 fighters, a package of air-launched weapons, and 18 “weapons-ready" General Atomics MQ-9B SkyGuardian RPAS. The potential $2.97 billion MQ-9B sale marked a change in U.S. export policy, but Washington suspended the Emirati request in 2021 after the UAE pressed ahead with a 5G telecoms deal with China’s Huawei, which the U.S. believed would give China an opportunity to acquire intelligence about the way the F-35 operates.

In September 2022, the UAE took delivery of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV)—a move that may have unlocked the MQ-9B procurement—which is expected to include 19 General Atomics APY-8 Lynx synthetic aperture/radar ground moving target indication radars and 25 Raytheon MTS-D multi-spectral infrared/electro-optical turret systems, as well as Hellfire missiles and Paveway II guidance kits.

The UAE is believed to be interested in the MQ-9B SkyGuardian, the certifiable Predator B, which has a due regard radar for sense-and–avoid capability. The order was originally to have included SeaSpray 7000 multi-mode radar and Sage 750 electronic support measures systems from Leonardo, plus a range of sonobuoys, which would make the aircraft Sea Guardian maritime platforms.

At last week’s International Defence Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi, General Atomics showed computer-generated images of Sky Guardians armed with Emirati weapons, notably the Halcon P-31 and P-32 Thunder GAINS (GNSS/INS) and semi-active laser homing bombs, and the Desert Sting 16 missile. The aircraft illustrated were also fitted with General Atomics’ short takeoff and landing (STOL) Wing Kit. This has already flown on the Mojave UCAV and includes new landing gear, broad-chord, larger area wings, and tail surfaces. The MQ-1C Gray Eagle-based Mojave can carry a 3,400-pound payload and can operate from shorter, unimproved airstrips, making it better suited for expeditionary operations.