Australia selects MQ-9B for Project Air 7003

The Australian government has announced selection of the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) MQ-9B SkyGuardian to provide the next-generation unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) for the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) under Project Air 7003.

Australia favoured the MQ-9B over the MQ-9A Reaper, the predecessor to the SkyGuardian in GA-ASI’s Predator family of medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UCAVs. The decision was initially announced by Australian Minister of Defence, Linda Reynolds, on November 28, but GA-ASI officially released a statement on December 4. The deal is currently valued at AUS$1.3bn (US$880m).

Linden Blue, CEO of GA-ASI, said: “We have worked closely with the ADF to determine the right RPAS [remotely piloted air system] to meet their needs.” He added that the “MQ-9B will provide the all-weather, multi-mission support, and interoperability that the ADF requires. We look forward to working closely with our Australian industry partners to provide a highly capable RPAS to the ADF, while creating high-tech jobs in Australia.”

MQ-9B SkyGuardian [Khalem Chapman]
GA-ASI MQ-9B SkyGuardian N190TC, a test aircraft for Protector, lands at RAF Fairford for the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) 2018, after successfully completing the worlds first transatlantic crossing by an RPA. Khalem Chapman

The ADF is expecting to take its first delivery of the MQ-9B in the early 2020s. It will join the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Belgian Armed Forces in acquiring this particular variant of the MQ-9 family. The RAF is scheduled to start receiving its first MQ-9Bs – which will be designated the Protector RG1 in UK service – in 2023. In British service, No 31 Squadron will operate the UCAV from RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. 

GA-ASI announced its intention to offer the MQ-9A and MQ-9B to the ADF at the Avalon International Airshow in 2017, following the launch of Team Reaper Australia – which includes a group of ten Australian industry partners, providing a range of innovative sensor, communication, life-cycle support and manufacturing capabilities. These partners include Cobham (which is the lead partner), CAE, Raytheon, Flight Data Systems, TAE Aerospace, Quickstep, AirSpeed, Collins Aerospace, Ultra and SentientVision.

The announcement follows the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF’s) acquisition of six Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) RPAS, part of the country’s Project Air 7000. The two-phase project aims to completely replace the RAAF’s AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) fleet. Phase 1B consists of the MQ-4C acquisition and Phase 2B is the procurement of Boeing P-8A Poseidon manned MPAs.

MQ-9B SkyGuardian 2 [Khalem Chapman]
N190TC bathes in the sun at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, in July 2018. Khalem Chapman

The project will now progress into a new phase which will develop the official MQ-9B acquisition proposal, scheduled for Australian government consideration between 2021-22. This will be Australia’s first MALE UCAV, with Minister of Defence Reynolds, saying: “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 Australian Defence Force maintains state-of-the-art capability”.

GA-ASI states that the MQ-9B is the “result of a five-year, company funded programme to deliver an unmanned aircraft system to meet the stringent airworthiness type-certification requirements of NATO and civil aviation authorities throughout the world.” The SkyGuardian is integrated with GA-ASI’s Detect and Avoid (DAA) system, which consists of an air-to-air radar, an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system and a Traffic alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS II). The RPAS is built to perform in all weather conditions with lightning protection, a de-icing system and damage tolerance.