The MQ-9B drone, known as Protector in UK service, could be a realistic option to augment the UK’s fleet of P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
A recent announcement from the builders of Protector, General Atomics, signals their continued effort to push the aircraft as a viable, long endurance maritime patrol platform.
Let’s look at this basics.
What is Protector?
Protector is the British variant of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian and the UK intends to purchase 16 examples of the UAV to replace the RAF’s current fleet of MQ-9A Reapers.
Protector is the world’s first certified Remotely Piloted Air System, enabling it to fly in busy, unsegregated airspace, including civilian airspace, thanks to its ‘sense and avoid’ technology.
What is Poseidon and why would it need to be ‘augmented’?
The P-8 Poseidon, developed by Boeing, is designed to conduct anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, and shipping interdiction, along with an electronic signals intelligence role. This involves carrying torpedoes, anti-ship missiles and other weapons.
It’s one of the most capable maritime patrol aircraft ever to fly. The problem for the UK, according to a number of people, is that the UK order of nine aircraft just simply “isn’t enough”.
Back in 2018, we reported that many believe that number of P-8A Poseidon aircraft being purchased is “too low to fulfil the range of tasks under its responsibility”.
The Defence Committee advised in 2018 that it had received detailed written evidence from former RAF officers with extensive experience of ASW operations who argue that “the intended aircraft and crew provision for the MPA force is too low to fulfil the range of tasks under its responsibility.”
Their report on the procurement stated the follow:
“Unrealistic assumptions have been made about the ability of NATO allies to contribute to MPA provision and that at least 16 aircraft and a higher crewing requirement is needed to attain the necessary coverage.”
More numerous, cheaper aircraft able to augment the nine Poseidon aircraft seems like a no-brainer, surely?
What makes the two types similar enough for this to be an option?
Very little at first glance but recent news from Leonardo that General Atomics is working with Leonardo to integrate the Leonardo Seaspray 7500E V2 radar into the centerline radar pod of the MQ-9B makes it a more viable maritime patrol platform.
Leonardo published the following yesterday:
“GA-ASI’s MQ-9B is revolutionizing the long-endurance RPAS market by providing all-weather capability and compliance with STANAG-4671 (NATO airworthiness standard for Unmanned Aircraft Systems). These features, along with an operationally proven collision-avoidance radar, enables flexible operations in civil airspace. SeaGuardian has a multi-mode maritime surface-search radar with Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) imaging mode, an Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver, and a High-Definition – Full-Motion Video sensor equipped with optical and infrared cameras. This sensor suite, augmented by automatic track correlation and anomaly-detection algorithms, enables real-time detection and identification of surface vessels over thousands of square nautical miles. The Seaspray 7500E V2 radar is well-suited to the SeaGuardian mission set, using Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) technology to detect, track and classify hundreds of maritime contacts.”
Their release also adds:
“The Seaspray greatly enhances the capabilities of the MQ-9B and builds on the already close working partnership between GA-ASI and Leonardo. Earlier this year GA-ASI announced the completion of initial integration work of Leonardo’s SAGE electronic surveillance unit onto the SeaGuardian, equipping the aircraft with the ability to gather intelligence information on maritime and land-based radar emitters over a wide area.”
You can read the full release here.
General Atomics also say that, during trials, the MQ-9 also demonstrated the operation of a multi-mode, maritime surface-search radar, and High-Definition/Full-Motion Video Optical and Infrared sensor.
“This sensor suite enables real-time detection and identification of large and small surface vessels in all-weather at long ranges, 360 degrees around the aircraft.”
Would this be a good idea?
It certainly isn’t a new idea, back in July last year, General Atomics were pushing the MQ-9B in a maritime patrol role in Japan, touting its 35 hour endurance as being ideal for maritime patrol. Additionally, General Atomics demonstrated the capabilities of the MQ-9B in December last year to European nations.
Would it be a good idea for the UK, though?
Andy Netherwood, a veteran of 26 years service in the Royal Air Force with operational tours flying the C-130 and C-17 as well as staff tours in Strategy, Policy & Plans, Capability Development and on the Directing Staff at the UK Defence Academy, thinks it would be a good idea:
“MQ-9B SeaGuardian will be equipped with Leonardo’s Seaspray radar capable of detecting, tracking & classifying hundreds of maritime contacts. MQ-9B Protector enters service with the RAF in 2024; this seems like a sensible option to augment Poseidon.
It can be fitted with sonobuoy dispensers and also process data from sonobuoys dropped by other aircraft. Brimstone will be integrated on UK Protector & GA has talked about a lightweight torpedo for subs.”
Will it happen?
Hold on, let me just get next weeks lottery numbers for you. Joking aside, we can only wait and see if the UK plans to adopt this capability.