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Is Australia’s purchase of “sky-high” U.S. drones a “wrong head”?

Is Australia's purchase of "sky-high" U.S. drones a "wrong head"?

The MQ-9B can mount a wide range of ground-to-ground attack munitions with a strong strike capability.

Recently, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced a U.S. Congress approved arms and equipment export deal, will deliver 12 MQ-9B drones and their supporting equipment to Australia, a total value of $1.651 billion.

The news comes amid widespread questions about why MQ-9B drones are so expensive, costing more than $100 million each. It also questions what role the MQ-9B drones will play when delivered to the Australian military.

From Predator to Guardian

The MQ-9B drone is the latest addition to the U.S. General Atomic Aeronautical Systems’ drone family and the latest in the MQ-9 family of drones.

The family of UAV-1 drones developed by General Atomic Aeronautical Systems began with the MQ-1 Predator. The aircraft is the world’s first truly practical one-in-one drone, creating a new era of the development of the world’s drones. In this sense, china’s “rainbow” and “pterosaur” series of UAV, as well as the 2020 Naqa war in Turkey TB-2 “flag officer” inspection of integrated drones and other countries developed models, should be honored as the United States MQ-1 “Predator” drone as “grandfather.”

Since then, the U.S. Air Force has put forward higher requirements for the flight performance and combat capability of integrated UAVs. The MQ-1 Predator drone can only mount two AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, and the relatively small body limits flight speed, utility lift limits, and increased operational radius. To this end, general atomic aviation systems company in the United States MQ-1 “Predator” drone based on the amplification design, the development of the MQ-9 “Reaper” large-scale high-altitude long-range long-range detection of integrated drones.

A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS (Remotely Piloted Air System) at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. 904 Expeditionary Air Wing (904 EAW) is responsible for the support and operation of RAF assets at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. As well as delivering hundreds of RAF air mobility movements every year with Hercules C-130J and BAE 146 aircraft, the EAW mounts attack and intelligence missions through its detachments of RAF Tornado GR4 fast jets. The EAW also provides support for a detachment providing launch and recovery of RAF and Reaper remotely piloted air systems. The Reaper Detachment operates the RAF’s highly capable remotely piloted air systems to supplement other air intelligence platforms with detailed imagery of ground conditions. Reaper’s primary role is to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and this forms the vast majority of its missions. However, when necessary the aircraft can also deploy precision-guided weapons to support Afghan-led ground forces in contact with the enemy. All Reaper missions are controlled by experienced RAF pilots, whose immediate face-to-face support from intelligence personnel and other operational specialists makes them among the most situationally aware pilots in the world. The Detachment is also supported by aerospace battle managers and other operational specialists based with 83 Expeditionary Air Group.

Currently, the U.S. Air Force has decommissioned all MQ-1 Predator drones, leaving only the MQ-9 Reaper’s large-scale high-altitude long-range drones. The latter can mount two GBU-38 satellite-guided bombs or GBU-12 “Gem Road” laser-guided bombs, eight AGM-114 “Hellfire” air-to-ground missiles, the ground target strike capability is very strong. Coupled with a combat radius of 2,963 km/h, a cruising speed of 389 km/h and a practical lift limit of 15,240 m, the MQ-9 Reaper’s ability to detect all-in-one drones during large-scale high-altitude long voyages has multiplied compared to the MQ-1 Predator. Moreover, when countries later developed large-scale high-altitude long-range drones, they also used the MQ-9 Reaper as a template to surpass the MQ-9 Reaper.

Although the MQ-9 Reaper performance is strong, the applicable combat environment and use is still relatively single, can not meet and achieve more diverse use requirements. To this end, in the absence of clear demand from the U.S. Air Force, General Atomic Aviation Systems has self-financed the development of the MQ-9B modular multipurpose drone based on the MQ-9 Reaper, nicknamed the Guardian.

A versa to the MQ-9B drone

In the past, the MQ-9 Reaper’s large-scale high-altitude long-range drones were used only as military drones and only in air force types. MQ-9B “Guardian” large modular multi-purpose UAV can be divided not only into military and civilian types according to use, but also air force and navy depending on the operational environment. The air force type of the MQ-9B large modular multi-purpose drone is known as the “SkyGuard”, while the Navy type is naturally called the “Sea Watcher”.

In appearance, the main wing of the MQ-9B Guardian large modular multi-purpose drone has an additional wingtip than the MQ-9 Reaper. The design was invented in the 1980s by experts at NASA’s Ames Research Center to reduce wingtip-induced resistance and increase wingspan and lift. Therefore, many passenger aircraft and transport aircraft have begun to apply wingtip small wings, in order to increase the range, reduce fuel consumption. The MQ-9B Guardian is the world’s first large-scale drone to use wingtips to meet user demand for the aircraft to dramatically increase its range. In addition, the MQ-9B Guardian large modular multi-purpose drone’s external hanging points have been increased from 8 MQ-9 Reaper to 9.

The Navy type of the MQ-9B large modular multi-purpose drone can perform anti-submarine missions.

The Air Force-type “SkyGuard” of the MQ-9B large modular multi-purpose drone has basically inherited and upgraded the on-board configuration of the MQ-9 Reaper, the multispectral aiming system has been upgraded from MTS-A to MTS-D, and the radar equipment is an AN/APY-8 Bobcat synthetic aperture radar with ground movement target indicator. The Navy’s “Sea Watcher” airborne configuration is essentially new, including the MX-20 infrared/photoelectric probe jointly developed by General Atomic Aeronautical Systems and L3 Harris Technologies, as well as the SeaSpray 7500E V2 active phased array maritime search radar and SAGE 750 electronic surveillance system produced by Leonardo, Italy.

According to the list of weapons and equipment exported to Australia released by the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency, in addition to 12 MQ-9B drones, it also includes optoelectronic vision systems, radars, positioning navigation systems and guided bomb components, plus logistical support and personnel training. So, if you simply buy 12 MQ-9B drones for a total of $1,651 million, the unit price per drone is outrageously expensive. However, combined with the purchase price of these equipments and the many security costs, the total price is reasonable.

This is not the Australian Air Force’s long-range strike force

Over the past decade, the Australian Air Force has entered the fast lane in equipment procurement, leaping from a role that was once out of reach to a powerful air force in the southern hemisphere and the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, the Australian Air Force has been using the United States Air Force as a template for its equipment system. At the same time, the Australian Air Force is also responsible for maritime operations, so it is also equipped with a considerable number of active-duty U.S. Navy aircraft.

From the main model, the Australian Air Force active military aircraft mainly include: F/A-18E/F “Super Hornet” fighter aircraft, EA-18G Roarer electronic fighter, RQ-4B “Global Eagle” drone, P-3C Orion “sea anti-submarine patrol aircraft, P-8A” Posey Winter maritime anti-submarine patrol aircraft and C-17 “Global Overlord” large transport aircraft. The U.S. has delivered more than 20 F-35A stealth fighters to the Australian Air Force.

An F-35A fighter purchased by the Australian Air Force.

In addition, the United States not only does not limit the Australian Air Force’s long-range strike capabilities, but also helps. As early as 2014, Australia’s defence minister made a high-profile announcement that the AGM-158 Joint Zone Outer Space Surface Missile (JASSM) purchased from the United States had become operational. By contrast, Japan, though one of America’s allies, has been suppressed by the United States on offensive weapons, limiting its development.

And, as recently as February last year, the United States announced the sale of 200 state-of-the-art AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missiles (LRASMs) to Australia and helped it integrate the missiles into F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters. There are signs that the US is making it one of the most loyal “hitters” in the Asia-Pacific region by exporting more advanced aviation weapons to Australia. And the Australian military is happy to play that role.

Well, in the entire Australian Air Force equipment system, there is precisely a large high-altitude long-range inspection of integrated drones such a blank. The arrival of the MQ-9B drone not only fills this gap, but also enhances the Australian Air Force’s maritime surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to a considerable extent, with the P-3C Orion maritime anti-submarine patrol aircraft, P-8A “Posey Winter” maritime anti-submarine patrol aircraft and other manned aircraft.

Because in Australia’s procurement list, the MQ-9B drone’s supporting equipment includes not only the MTS-D multispectral targeting system and THE/APY-8 Bobcat synthetic aperture radar, but also the Italian company SeaSpray 7500E V2 Active Phased Array Maritime Search Radar and SAGE 750 Electronic Surveillance System (ESM). In other words, the 12 MQ-9B drones purchased by Australia can be retrofitted to “SkyGuard” or “Sea Watcher” by modular design, depending on the task to be undertaken.

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