Air Force Is First U.S. Customer for the MQ-9B SkyGuardian

 - March 7, 2023, 5:30 AM
A company-owned trials vehicle is seen being de-iced at Grand Forks during cold weather validation tests last month. (Photo: GA-ASI)

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) has been awarded a contract to provide three MQ-9B SkyGuardian remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) to the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). The deal marks the first order for the SkyGuardian from the U.S. military services.

The Air Force’s Air Combat Command has operated the earlier MQ-9A Reaper drone for more than 14 years, and the type has become the service’s standard “hunter/killer” RPAS. As such it has seen action in numerous theaters, often operating in harsh environments. The AFSOC MQ-9Bs are intended to play a key part in developing the command’s Adaptive Airborne Enterprise (A2E) concept, in which airpower can be projected effectively from beyond the horizon to support special forces. A2E envisions the employment of a range of large RPAS and smaller, expendable unmanned systems that can provide air support—including surveillance, targeting, and effects—across a range of air environments, from permissive to heavily defended “denied” airspace.

“We’re very excited to continue our great partnership with AFSOC well into the future,” said David Alexander, president of GA-ASI. “MQ-9B is the ideal platform for inserting air-launched effects into potentially hostile environments. The MQ-9B’s combination of range, endurance, reduced manpower footprint, and overall flexibility will make it a true centerpiece of AFSOC’s future family of advanced UAS systems.”

Formerly known as the Certifiable Predator B, the MQ-9B is an evolution of the MQ-9A Reaper with a wealth of improvements, including the ability to remain aloft for longer than 40 hours in certain configurations. It can perform automatic takeoffs and landings under Satcom control alone, and has GA-ASI’s Detect and Avoid System. Moreover, it has been designed to meet the stringent airworthiness certification requirements of both military and civil authorities around the world, particularly for operations in civilian airspace.

The MQ-9B has already been selected by the UK military for its Protector requirement, and by Belgium. It is currently flying with the Japan Coast Guard in its SeaGuardian configuration with surface search radar, and in April will begin an RPAS Trial Operation Project with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. It has attracted interest from a number of nations, including the United Arab Emirates.

Recent accomplishments by the MQ-9B include cold-weather validation tests held in late January/early February at GA-ASI’s Flight Test and Training Center at Grand Forks, North Dakota. A company-owned SkyGuardian was cold-soaked to below -21°C/-5°F for 12 hours before operating successfully in similarly cold outside temperatures. At the end of 2022, an MQ-9A successfully tested operations with a low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite control system. Both tests combined to validate the MQ-9B’s truly pole-to-pole operating capability.