British MQ-9B drones, known as ‘Protector’, could be used augment the UK’s fleet of P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft.

A recent announcement from the builders of Protector, American firm General Atomics (GA-ASI), signals their continued effort to push the aircraft as a viable, long endurance maritime patrol platform. Additionally, remarks from senior politicians and Royal Air Force higher-ups appear to signal the intention to operate Protector in a maritime role. I’ll go into this more below, but first the 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.

Protector in flight.

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”.

FILE PHOTO: A British Poseidon and a Typhoon.

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:

“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.”

 

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.

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.”

You can read more from Andy on his Twitter account where he frequently discusses topical aviation news. I’d recommend following him if you don’t already.

The prototype of the aircraft, currently on trials around the UK, is reportedly configured with maritime capability, including a multi-mode maritime surface-search radar. This is expected to build on previous maritime demonstrations mentioned  previously in this article.

SkyGuardian drone to undertake trials in UK skies

“GA-ASI will work closely with multiple European allies to demonstrate the capabilities of MQ-9B, including in the maritime environment, and how MQ-9B can complement and team within a networked environment with other national assets,” said Tommy Dunehew, vice president of International Strategic Development for GA-ASI.

Back in 2019, then Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier said:

“Protector exemplifies the benefits that military-industry partnering can bring. Through the embedding of experienced RAF operators in the program, we are helping bring a world-leading capability to life. It will provide the RAF with a remotely piloted air system — equipped with British-designed and built weapons – that can operate worldwide for up to 40 hours. And even better I am pleased to confirm that we are already talking with international partners about how we develop capability even further including in the maritime domain.”

Will it happen?

It’s currently an unknown. While Group Captain Shaun Gee, the RAF Director Air for ISTAR Programmes, recently discussed the British hope to one day use Protector in a maritime role to augment Poseidon, he also noted that nothing has yet been funded.

Additionally it should be noted that Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace said last year:

“In a UK environment, I could see it covering maritime issues that we currently use planes to do with people on it, like the P-8 [Poseidon], currently do lots of that. So, we can do lots of maritime awareness, I would see it potentially if there was an oil slick or something. That’s the type of thing that gives you that persistence, that I think the rest of the UK Government has as a capability.”

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farouk
farouk
22 days ago

So I have to ask are there many differences between the Sky Guardian and Sea Guardian (Looking down the line of more anti corrosion) meaning if there is, are we looking at the risk of maintenance issues if we utilize a craft designed to fly over land to operate over the Seven Seas Of Rhye (Now get that piano intro out of your head)

Last edited 22 days ago by farouk
John N
John N
22 days ago
Reply to  farouk

It would appear that MQ-9B can be configured as either SkyGuardian or SeaGuardian variant by switching in and out the relevant radar and sensors. If you look at the attached DSCA notification for the RAAF, 12 airframes, you’ll see that the RAAF plans to procure all the equipment necessary to operate either version: https://www.dsca.mil/press-media/major-arms-sales/australia-mq-9b-remotely-piloted-aircraft There certainly is a ‘shed load’ of equipment being procured by the RAAF, I’d assume the RAF equipment list for their MQ-9B fleet will be similar or same. The maritime surveillance fleet for the RAAF is looking pretty good, 14 x P-8A, 6-7 x MQ-4C and… Read more »

Tommo
Tommo
22 days ago
Reply to  farouk

Love the Queen drop in there Farouk ,

farouk
farouk
22 days ago
Reply to  Tommo

Well I do share the same first name (different spelling) with Freddy

Tommo
Tommo
22 days ago
Reply to  farouk

Just thought, you were showing your age I was just leaving School when that track aired on TOTPs Farouk

Tommo
Tommo
22 days ago
Reply to  farouk

What is the compersite make up of the air frame for Sea Guardian I would believe that at the height that it would loiter whilst on station there shouldn’t be a lot of sea evaporation corrosion never tasted salt raindrops if you get my drift

DaveyB
DaveyB
22 days ago
Reply to  Tommo

Seawater spray/droplets from choppy seas can reach as high as 1000ft or more depending on the air temperature. Aircraft like the Nimrod were not designed for constant operations down below 1000ft. If they did they would get a fresh water wash to get the salt off.

The MQ-9 being a big brother of the Predator, is mostly made up of composites and predominantly fibreglass. The gel coat will provide adequate protection plus they are painted to protect them from UV. However, they will also probably be washed after operating over the sea/ocean to remove any residue build up.

Tommo
Tommo
22 days ago
Reply to  DaveyB

That’s what I was trying somewhat too put across Sea Guardian is not an Alloy constructed airframe and I would expect the only time she would operate below 1000,ft is if its dropping Jesabels or what ever their called now (sonar bouys)

Quentin D63
Quentin D63
22 days ago

How did they get stuck on just 9 P-8s?

MarkT
MarkT
22 days ago
Reply to  Quentin D63

Politics and money. The number of Nimrod MR4 to be purchased was 9 so the number of P8 to be bought in their place is 9. Sadly money, or lack of, trumps operational necessity.

Supportive Bloke
Supportive Bloke
22 days ago
Reply to  MarkT

The realities are changing fast.

IRL it would be a lot faster to buy more P8’s to constrain Russian sub activity than to seek to buy more Astutes.

Particularly as a P8 production line actually exists….in the real world…..

As the cost of MRa4 rocketed so the numbers procured were sliced to fit the allocated budget until it was down to 9. I think the program started at 21 (?) from memory…..

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
22 days ago

Yes. 21, then 16, then 12, then 8, then none!!!

Trevor
Trevor
22 days ago

And before that, 40+ Nimrod MR1, then 30+ MR2.

A rather familiar procurement story….

Last edited 22 days ago by Trevor
Klonkie
Klonkie
22 days ago

Hello D. My concern is the expectation of 16 UAVs to perform their original primary mission and a potential expansion to include maritime ops.16 assets seems to soft to do both well . I know I bang on about it, but where is the redundancy factor.

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
22 days ago
Reply to  Klonkie

We don’t have any.

John Clark
John Clark
22 days ago

Absolutely Daniele, it’s looking like the Protector fleet is going to be very busy… For instance, how long is it going to be before we are also having to delouse our SSBN’s from Chinese as well as Russian SSN’s?? Certainly it’s a great buy, another 10 would be good to allow a good number to back up the P8 fleet for patrol missions and would hopefully keep the F.I on the P8’s under some sort of control. With only 9 P8’s, the RAF fleet is going to have a utilisation rate ‘way’ higher than the US fleet! It’s going to… Read more »

Last edited 22 days ago by John Clark
Rudeboy1
Rudeboy1
21 days ago
Reply to  John Clark

The PLAN have 9 SSN’s in total.
3 of which are so noisy the P-8’s could pick them up in the SCS from Lossiemouth…
In order for them to deply SSN’s in the Atlantic they’d need to use all 6 to keep 1 boat on station…

Mark
Mark
18 days ago
Reply to  John Clark

But as it’s based on a commercial airliner it will last at least 20 years+ sensors and data link tech will be outdated in 20 years and be replaced all together by loitering stratosphere airships…buy another 8 protectors Purley for Martine time use.
Also does the P8 have a designated crew rest facilities so can operate for extended patrols with refueling.

James
James
20 days ago
Reply to  Klonkie

Which is why the RAF is lobbying hard for more…

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
17 days ago

“IRL it would be a lot faster to buy more P8’s to constrain Russian sub activity than to seek to buy more Astutes.” Modern SSNs and especially diesel-electric AIP subs are so quiet that I don’t see how they can be detected any more using passive sonar. It seems to have reached the limit of its capabilities. And subs with acoustic tiles are hard to detect using active sonar (e.g. dipping sonar and sonobuoys). Modern subs also use methods to thwart MAD. The Gotland exercises proved how hard it is to detect a modern sub. In the Falklands we fired… Read more »

Robert Blay.
Robert Blay.
22 days ago
Reply to  MarkT

9 is better than none at all. And a very capable fleet they will be.

Klonkie
Klonkie
22 days ago
Reply to  Robert Blay.

l can’t understand why this requires two squadrons for only 9 aircraft. Perhaps there is a cunning MOD plan to expand the fleet with a few more in the future.

Robert Blay
Robert Blay
22 days ago
Reply to  Klonkie

One of the sqns is like a OCU. But the 9 aircraft are used as a fleet, rather than aircraft assigned to a particular sqn.

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
22 days ago
Reply to  Klonkie

The fleet is pooled mate.

Klonkie
Klonkie
22 days ago

thx D

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
17 days ago
Reply to  MarkT

We have plenty of money, but we spend most of it on all the wrong things. A carrier group would be useless against Russia or China because if it’s staying out of the range of DF-26 or Kinzhal the F-35Bs couldn’t reach land. The only assets we have that would be any use against either country are the Astutes and we don’t have enough of them at all. All the money we spent on the carriers, F-35Bs and Type 45s could have been far better spent on long-range aircraft firing long-range missiles to take out ships and ground targets from… Read more »

Last edited 17 days ago by Hugh Jarce
Johan
Johan
22 days ago

Yes, we do think that 9 is not enough, but brand new platform and tech and training centers and base.
all draws money from the ASW platform, do wonder if the same Ex ASW were the people consulted over MRA4.

Look @ Australia, adds to its existing fleet tagged to American orders. 737 NG is going to be produced for a few more years.

What is the rush its not TOP TRUMPS.

Reaper
Reaper
22 days ago

I really hope this was the plan all allong, and we only bought 9 p8s because of that….

Lionel
Lionel
22 days ago
Reply to  Reaper

Although it’s probably not likely in the current climate, even with the recent increases to budgets – given for example that the number of Wedgetails on order was reduced – the door is at least open in terms of the fact that lots of countries are ordering P8s so there is a potential opportunity to jump back on board and order more from Boeing in the coming years if there is a reappraisal.

Nigel Collins
Nigel Collins
22 days ago
Reply to  Reaper

Quite possibly? I’m guessing the P8’s will operate to a degree like motherships given the level of technology and sophistication available to us at the moment and more MQ-9B SeaGuardians added as and when required. We have a shortfall in personnel plus, the battlespace is changing. Drones and autonomous vehicles in part will make up those numbers. Think of the MQ-9B SeaGuardian operating like Taranis, three modes of operation, automatic, autonomous and manual. “The autonomous mode is entered and exited from specified waypoints and is where the UCAV “thinks for itself” according to Wiggall.” His diagram showed a box of… Read more »

Last edited 22 days ago by Nigel Collins
Nigel Collins
Nigel Collins
22 days ago
Reply to  Nigel Collins

I assume the numbers will grow over time?

09 Sep 2021

“RAF’s next-generation Remotely Piloted Aircraft takes to UK skies

“Operating this summer from the Lincolnshire station, the SkyGuardian aircraft has undertaken a number of sorties showcasing its impressive capabilities while also providing vital information for personnel at RAF Waddington preparing for the aircraft’s permanent arrival in 2024. SkyGuardian will be known as Protector when it enters RAF service.”

https://www.raf.mod.uk/news/articles/rafs-next-generation-remotely-piloted-aircraft-takes-to-uk-skies/

Last edited 22 days ago by Nigel Collins
Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
22 days ago

This seems sensible, especially if CT ops over the Middle East reduce. Our Reapers, and Predators before them, have never physically been based at Waddington, with only the Sqn HQs and the GCS located there ( along with one in the US shared with the USAF ) So when all 16 are in service and based at Waddo you’d think there will be spare capacity available amongst those not forward based in the ME to undertake the maritime role right on their doorstep. Anyone else heard about RAFs desire to keep Reapers when Protector arrives? Would be perfect if so,… Read more »

Klonkie
Klonkie
22 days ago

Surely the RAF will be compiled to increase the numbers then? Perhaps some of the savings from the pending Typhoon Trance 1 retirement can be diverted for funding?

ChariotRider
ChariotRider
22 days ago

Hi Daniele,

According to the RAF website the Protectors will replace the Reapers. However, there are 10 options for more Protectors in the current deal signed with the US.

Link: https://www.raf.mod.uk/aircraft/reaper-mq9a/
See the final paragraph…

So there is hope that more Protectors could be procured, which I think is more likely than further P-8’s given the UK seems to be pushing on down the uncrewed platform route across the board…

Cheers CR

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
22 days ago
Reply to  ChariotRider

Shame, I’d have liked to see the Reaper retained. There is little wrong with them.
Was not aware of the optional 10.
Thanks CR.

Nigel Collins
Nigel Collins
22 days ago

“The UK government has invested in an initial 16 Protector RG1 platforms to replace the RAF’s nine MQ-9 Reapers (the government has a stated requirement for 20, although a US Defense Security Cooperation Agency notification of the proposed Protector sale has put the number at 26), with a contract for the first three having been signed in July.”

https://www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/uk-and-belgium-to-collaborate-on-protectorskyguardian-uas

Quentin D63
Quentin D63
22 days ago
Reply to  ChariotRider

On a bit of a tangent but why was the Wedgetail AEW order reduced to 3 from 5? Are any future UAVs, satellites, radars taking up for the other 2? Could have swapped places for 2 additional P-8s? Are the airframes the same or slightly different?

ChariotRider
ChariotRider
22 days ago
Reply to  Quentin D63

Hi Quentin, To answer your first and last questions first: I have no idea of why the Wedgetail order was reduced but money is the obvious issue to point the finger at. Also the P-8 uses a different version of the 737 airframe as the systems to be carried are very different. As for alternatives such as other radars and UAV’s, well that is a more interesting question. Given the UK services recent increased enthusiasm for all things autonomous I suspect that the Wedgetail may be seen as a stop gap solution or perhaps the initial phase of a more… Read more »

Heidfirst
Heidfirst
22 days ago

It is currently flying out of RAF Lossiemouth, home of the P-8 in RAF service.
Btw the 6th RAF P-8 was delivered to Lossie just after 8AM this morning. 🙂

Barry Humphries
Barry Humphries
22 days ago

Maybe a variant MQ9B could be a good option for Royal Navy AEW. If it could be operated off the deck of our carrier’s. If a form of arrester hook and deck cables fitted. Maybe with folding wings to save onboard space.

Quentin D63
Quentin D63
22 days ago

Like the idea Barry of off the carriers . Is the UK considering any jet powered Triton type UAVs in its fleet?

ChariotRider
ChariotRider
21 days ago

Hi Barry, Sadly it is not a straight forward job of attaching a hook to an airframe and hurling if off a carrier. The catapult loads will either pull the nose gear off or significantly reduce the fatigue life, but the most challenging issue is the landing – no flared touchdown otherwise you risk missing the arrester wires and getting hit by 65,000tons of steel going at 30knots if you cannot get the power on fast enough. That means huge landing loads that land based airframe are simply not designed to take. Even if they landing gear dosen’t break on… Read more »

Daveyb
Daveyb
21 days ago

It’s too small I’m afraid. If MoD want keep to a similar radar performance as the Crowsnest, then yes a carrier qualified MQ-9 type of airframe, with a modified Seaspray 7500 or Osprey 50 would be more than doable. However, this means the radar will still have a maximum effective range of around 200nm against a 1m3 to 5m3 RCS target. Against a stealthier design such as a J20, J31, Su57 or Su 75, these aircraft will get a lot closer before they are detected. Preferably you need a radar that can detect targets with a RCS 1/10 or even… Read more »

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
17 days ago
Reply to  Daveyb

“In the past I wrote a piece on a similar subject, where I concluded that the Boeing MQ-25 Stingray is probably the best aircraft the MoD could use for an air tanker role”

How? The MQ-25 lacks range and doesn’t carry a meaningful amount of fuel. If a carrier group is staying out of the range of DF-26 or Kinzhal then the MQ-25 would be useless in a war against Russia or China.

Plus the QE and PoW would need to be fitted with cats & traps to launch it anyway.

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
17 days ago

I can understand detecting and taking out surface ships, but subs? How are they going to be detected and taken out? We fired 200 torpedoes in the Falklands trying to take out 1 Argentinian sub and failed. We probably killed a lot of whales though.

Last edited 17 days ago by Hugh Jarce