US approves MQ-9B sale to Australia

The US State Department has approved the possible Foreign Military Sale (FMS) of 12 ‘weapons-ready’ General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) MQ-9B remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA) to the Australian government.

Approval of the potential deal was confirmed in an announcement by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) on April 23, after it had notified the US Congress of the planned sale. If all options are taken up, this respective FMS will be worth an estimated US$1.651bn, which includes the aircraft and all related equipment.

SeaGuardian [GA-ASI]
A variant of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian family, the SeaGuardian has been developed specifically for conducting maritime operations. Given that Australia plans to operate the type in this domain, it is likely that this version of the MQ-9B will be the one sourced for the RAAF. GA-ASI

The DSCA stated that the Australian government has requested to purchase 12 ‘weapons-ready’ MQ-9Bs, 15 Raytheon Multi-Spectral Targeting Systems-D (MTS-D) electo-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors; 16 Lynx AN/APY-8 synthetic aperture radars (SAR) with Ground Moving Target Indicators (GTMI); 15 RIOTM Communication Intelligence Systems; 36 Embedded Global Positioning Systems/Inertial Navigation Systems (EGI) with Selective Availability Anti-Spoofing Modules (SAASMs).

As part of this prospective sale, Australia seeks to acquire a number of munitions for the MQ-9B. This comprises six KMU-572 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) tail kits for 500lb bombs, along with four MXU-650 Airfoil Groups for 500lb GBU-12 Paveway II and seven MXU-1006 Airfoil Groups for 250lb GBU-58 Paveway II laser-guided bombs. It also includes four MAU-169/MAU-209 Computer Control Groups (CCGs) for both the 250lb and 500lb GBU-58/GBU-12 Paveway II munitions.

Additionally, Australia seeks to procure six FMU-139 Fuse Systems; five High Bandwidth Compact Telemetry Modules (HCTMs) and an undisclosed number of DSU-38 Laser Illuminated Target Detectors for the GBU-54 laser JDAM. The deal also covers the acquisition of 12 inert 500lb Mk 82 and an unknown number of inert 250lb Mk 81 general purpose bombs, along with Hellfire training missiles, missile rail kits and integration and M-299 Hellfire rail launchers.

Also included in the deal would be Honeywell aircraft engines; Certifiable Ground Control Stations (CGCSs); mobile Satellite Communication Ground Data Terminals (SGDTs) and Leonardo SAGE 750 Electronic Surveillance Measures (ESM) systems. It also covers the acquisition of ARC-210 radios, AN/DPC-7 identification friend or foe (IFF) transponders; Leonardo/Selex SeaSpray 7500 maritime radars, as well as KOR-24A Small Tactical Terminals (with Link-16 datalink capabilities) and electronic intelligence systems from Sierra Nevada Corporation.

MQ-9B [US Navy/Petty Officer Shannon Renfroe]
A company-owned MQ-9B SeaGuardian flies over the Independence-class littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) while participating in the US Pacific Fleet’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 21 exercise on April 21, 2021. US Navy/Petty Officer Shannon Renfroe

Finally, the proposed sale also includes an MQ-9B training simulator; aircraft and weapons integration; test and associated test equipment; initial spares and repair parts; related publications and technical documents; personnel training and equipment; and technical/logistical support services.

The DSCA noted that the potential deal will enhance interoperability between the US Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). “The proposed sale improves Australia’s capability to meet current and future threats by providing timely intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), target acquisition, [submarine locating] capabilities, and counter-land and counter-surface sea capabilities for its security and defence.”

Australian Defence Minister Christopher Pyne announced on November 16, 2018, that GA-ASI had been selected as the winner of its Project Air 7003 Phase 1 competition, which sought to select a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) RPA for the Australian Defence Force (ADF). At that time, Australia had yet to choose between the MQ-9A Reaper Block 5 variant or the new MQ-9B SkyGuardian (formerly known as the Certifiable Predator B), which is under development for the UK as the Protector RG1.

Pyne said that 12-16 air vehicles would be acquired under the project, which, in the 2016 Australian Defence White Paper, was priced at between AU$1bn (US$730m) and AU$2bn (US$1.45bn). Subsequently, on November 28, 2019, the Australian Department of Defence announced it had down-selected the MQ-9B for the requirement, making it the first armed MALE RPA to be acquired by Australia.