General Atomics has shown off a concept for a carrier-capable MQ-9B drone, a type already entering service with the Royal Air Force.
Adding Short-Takeoff & Landing Capability to Industry-Leading RPA Enhances Versatility
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems have announced that it will begin developing a short takeoff and landing (STOL)-capable MQ-9B aircraft, which includes the SkyGuardian and SeaGuardian models.
“GA-ASI is taking on this revolutionary engineering effort to meet an evolving operational environment in contested expeditionary environments. GA-ASI began STOL development in 2017 as part of its Mojave initiative.”
Presenting MQ-9B’s new short takeoff and landing capability: MQ-9B STOL
With this developing capability, MQ-9B will be the first #UAS in its class to enable big-deck amphib takeoff and landing, unlocking unlimited potential at sea. #MDM2022
— GA-ASI (@GenAtomics_ASI) May 10, 2022
The firm says in a news release that the STOL capability was initially flown on a modified Gray Eagle Extended Range platform in 2021, but now the company will begin developing STOL on the MQ-9B, a platform already selected by the Royal Air Force, the Belgium Ministry of Defence and the Japanese Coast Guard.
“MQ-9B STOL will combine GA-ASI’s proven long-endurance, highly reliable UAS products with the versatility to execute missions in more austere locations, opening the operational envelope for commanders across all Services and geographic locations.”
The firm also say that the MQ-9B STOL configuration will consist of an optional wing and tail kit that can be installed in less than a day.
“The core aircraft and its sub-systems remain the same. Operators can perform the modification in a hangar or on a flight line, delivering a capability that otherwise would require the purchase of a whole new aircraft.”
MQ-9B STOL, say the firm, presents an opportunity for future operations aboard an aircraft carrier or big-deck amphibious assault ship.
“The wings fold so that MQ-9B STOL could be parked on the deck or in the hangar bay, just like other naval aircraft. When it’s time to launch, operators will start the aircraft, unfold the wings, and take off over the bow without the need for catapults. GA-ASI believes the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps will take note of this innovation as it opens the door to persistent and long-range Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations over blue water.”
Could these end up on the Queen Elizabeth class?
This is speculation at best but it would certainly be possible.
The Royal Navy is moving towards drones to augment and complement the number of aircraft that can be deployed onboard their two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.
Last year I reported that drones could “allow the opportunity” for Britain to put an air wing on both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales at the same time.
The current plan is for two aircraft carriers and one air wing that would sail on whichever aircraft carrier is being held at “very high readiness”. It was however suggested at a Defence Select Committee evidence session that drones might allow for a second carrier air wing. The transcript is below.
Admiral Sir Tony Radakin:
“Are we matching what the Department has always said, which is that the carrier full operating capability matures at the end of 2024 and needs to be able to deploy 24 jets on an aircraft carrier? We are absolutely on track to be able to do that, and I think that has always been a very clear aspiration and it has been laid out. Within the Navy—so not yet a departmental plan—how might we be able to look to provide a second carrier air wing? In the modern world, does that mean purely more jets, or is it what I think most of us would see as being a hybrid force of both jets and drones?”
Admiral Tony Radakin:
“No, drones from the aircraft carrier. If you look at what is going on with the Air Force and their Mosquito and LANCA programme, and if you saw what happened in September with HMS Prince of Wales flying the first jet drone, that is the area that we want to pursue. Then we can start to give Ministers choices around whether or not it might be feasible, but not at the expense of buying lots of expensive aircraft even more quickly. Are there opportunities with the cost of drones? Does it become a better offensive capability to blend drones with crewed jets? And does that then start to allow you the opportunity for two carrier air wings to marry up with both carriers?”
Drones on the carriers?
Plans to incorporate drones aren’t new, carrier-based ‘Vixen’ drones are already being considered for a range of missions including combat, aerial refuelling and airborne early warning but what could they look like?
According to an official Royal Navy publication, titled Future Maritime Aviation Force, which was originally published in December 2020, the Royal Navy aims to replace its helicopter-based airborne early warning (AEW) platform, the Merlin HM2 Crowsnest, with a fixed-wing UAV, currently known as Vixen, by 2030.
The Royal Navy also expects to utilise Vixen in surveillance, air-to-air refuelling, electronic warfare and strike roles. A slide from the publication shows that Vixen could be used for airborne early warning, strike, aerial refuelling and more.
Additionally, MQ-9B/Protector is also mentioned (albeit as a land-based platform) so the ‘STOL’ modification at least increases basing options for a platform already part of the Future Maritime Aviation Force.
What are Vixen and Mosquito?
Project Vixen parallels the Mosquito project, part of the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) initiative. Naval Technology reported here that the Royal Navy and RAF are working together to study potential platforms for Mosquito and Vixen, suggesting that a common drone could be fielded by both services. We reported recently that the uncrewed fighter aircraft demonstrator for LANCA, known as Mosquito, will begin a flight-test programme in 2023.
Minister for Defence Procurement, Jeremy Quin, gave a keynote speech at the RUSI Combat Air Power conference outlining the plan.
“Our £30m contract to design and manufacture the prototype for an uncrewed fighter aircraft, known as Mosquito, is supporting more than 100 jobs in Belfast. In 2023 we will be looking to conduct a flight-test programme for the demonstrator.”
Known as a ‘loyal wingman’, these aircraft will be the first uncrewed platforms able to target and shoot down enemy aircraft and intercept surface to air missiles.
“The uncrewed combat aircraft will be designed to fly at high-speed alongside fighter jets, armed with missiles, surveillance and electronic warfare technology to provide a battle-winning advantage over hostile forces. Known as a ‘loyal wingman’, these aircraft will be the UK’s first uncrewed platforms able to target and shoot down enemy aircraft and survive against surface to air missiles.”
Team MOSQUITO, which also includes Northrop Grumman UK, will mature the designs and manufacture a technology demonstrator to generate evidence for the LANCA programme.
If successful, Project Mosquito’s findings could lead to this revolutionary capability being deployed alongside the Typhoon and F-35 Lightning jets by the end of the decade.
“The Project will deliver a demonstration of a capability that the RAF may wish to develop further in the future,” a spokesperson from the RAF said.
“It is not intended to output an operational capability at this stage, but it will inform future decisions for the future UK combat air capability. We are exploring the optimum way in which such capabilities could complement platforms such as Typhoon, F-35, and Tempest.”
Most commentators believe that Vixen and Mosquito are likely to share a common platform.
What is the status of MQ-9B with the UK?
The first set of V-tails manufactured by GKN Aerospace on the Isle of Wight has been fitted to one of 16 new Protector aircraft destined for the Royal Air Force.
According to a news release from the RAF, GKN Aerospace now manufactures the V-tails for all MQ-9B aircraft variants which are manufactured by General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems-Inc (GA-ASI) at a facility in California.
The MQ-9B aircraft will be known as Protector once it enters RAF service by mid-2024.
The RAF add that Protector will be deployed in wide-ranging Intelligence, Surveillance, Targeting and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations where its ability to fly consistently for up to 40 hours, offers the RAF vastly improved armed ISTAR capability.
Michelle Sanders, Remotely Piloted Air Systems Delivery Team Leader, was quoted as saying:
“This milestone demonstrates the continued progress being made on this important programme which will provide the RAF with a cutting-edge capability. As well as equipping the UK Armed Forces for operations now and into the future, this key programme promotes prosperity in the UK and supports highly-skilled jobs.”
Will these end up on the Queen Elizabeth class?
I asked a respected defence analyst, known on Twitter as @Sierra__Alpha, what he thought about this. He’s well worth a follow so please do so by clicking here. He told me:
“The prospect of a deck capable MQ-9B is one of great interest and something that many familiar with the defence industry would consider somewhat overdue. Today’s unveiling of such a platform by General Atomics, will have many Defence experts wondering as to where the platform could possibly fit into the inventory of the British Armed Forces, if at all.
For the last 18 months, the Royal Navy has been keen to explore (and even in some cases trial) a number of different unmanned aerial platforms for the primary purpose of heavy lift, including the Aeronautics T-600 quadcopter and Windracers Autonomous Systems’ Ultra Drone, although none of these trials have taken place outside of RNAS Culdrose.
The MQ-9B STOL has a number of differences from its land-based variant. Folding wings make for additional space saving, both on a burgeoning flightdeck and lower deck hangars, it’s Short Take-Off and Landing package also significantly means that ‘cats and traps’ are not necessary for the aircraft to successfully operate off the intended flightdeck, a feature that highlights a possible operational consistency with the two Royal Navy Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers.
With its respective weapons payload (including Air to Ground Missiles, Air to Air Missiles and also the ability to deploy sonobuoys), remaining largely unchanged by the addition of STOL capabilities, the operational effectiveness of the MQ-9B STOL will remain at a high level, with Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance at the forefront of its function as part of a carrier air wing, alongside Anti-Submarine Warfare and even Oceanic Survey missions.
All of which could prove to be a valuable asset to the Royal Navy, in which as things stand, currently lacks a long range fixed wing ISTAR platform capable of delivering world beating coverage and weapons delivery from HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
The ongoing narrative of needing an unmanned, deck operated platform for the RN could be put to bed, as Royal Air Force personnel now have years of experience operating and maintaining the MQ-9 in high pressure environments and therefore, would certainly be a viable customer for the MQ-9B STOL.”