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GA-ASI SeaGuardian: Flexible air surveillance

Line of Defence Magazine, Summer 2017/18

The MQ-9B SeaGuardian - ideally suited to conduct wide area surveillance for detection and identification.The MQ-9B SeaGuardian - ideally suited to conduct wide area surveillance for detection and identification.

 

In this profile of the MQ-9B SeaGuardian, Director of International Strategic Development for Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI), Warren Ludwig, shares his perspectives on this Future Air Surveillance Capability (FASC) contender.

 

The Defence White Paper 2016 provisioned additional funding for air surveillance “to enable the Government to continue to offer a highly valued air surveillance capability to multinational operations, without compromising surveillance operations closer to home.”

With the six P-3 Orions that provide the NZDF’s air surveillance capability due for retirement in the mid-2020s, the Defence Capability Plan 2016 lists several factors that contribute to the need for additional investment in air surveillance.

These include a growth in the sophistication, range and number of actors operating in the Southern Ocean; transnational crime driving more frequent airborne surveillance support requests from South Pacific nations; expectations over regular contributions to multinational missions; and increased defence spending in North and Southeast Asia, including the growth of submarine fleets.

And this is on top of the traditional littoral, search and rescue and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) roles that we’ve seen the P-3s perform during their five decades of service.

This diverse set of drivers means that the FASC will need to be nimble indeed. For this reason, argues Warren Ludwig from General Atomics, a mix of manned and unmanned platforms would optimise cost-effectiveness for New Zealand.

 

Cost-effective multi-intelligence solution

In late 2016, GA-ASI submitted a response in relation to Defence’s FASC RFI. “Our understanding is that MoD is interested in a manned aircraft and a ‘complementary capability’; they need the complement because a manned aircraft isn’t cost-effective in the wide range of tasks needed for the FASC,” Warren told Line of Defence.

“We’ve offered to the Ministry of Defence the unarmed MQ-9B SeaGuardian, a new Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) from our Predator series that’s predominantly focused on maritime domain awareness but with a multi-intelligence capability,” he said. “Importantly, we’ve offered this with the realisation that New Zealand needs and will acquire a manned surveillance aircraft as well for the FASC.

“To maximise cost-effectiveness, low-cost unmanned aircraft are ideally suited to conduct wide area surveillance for detection and identification, while costly manned aircraft are better restricted to focused areas for identification and further investigation.”

Warren knows a thing or two about air surveillance. A former Air-Vice Marshal, his 35 years in the RAAF included extensive P-3 Orion experience.

“General Atomics has built over 800 Predator series aircraft and over 300 Ground Control Stations, and operates in around 50 sites around the world,” he said. “Around 70 Predator series aircraft are flying every second of every day.”

Predator series aircraft have accumulated over 4.8 million flight hours: this amount is increasing by over half a million flight hours per year. Impressively, 90 percent of these flight hours are on actual operations.

 

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Superior endurance

The MQ-9B SeaGuardian boasts a range of 5,400 nautical miles and an endurance of 40 hours plus. “We flew an MQ-9B recently for 48.2 hours on 6,000 pounds of fuel,” Warren recalled. “If you compare that to a P-3, which takes 60,000 pounds or a P-8, which takes in the order of 75,000, that’s exceptional cost-effectiveness.”

“We’ve completed modelling for the SeaGuardian operating out of Invercargill and we can achieve around 12 hours deep in the Southern Ocean while still recovering back to Invercargill.

“SeaGuardian has the ability to deploy down to the ice or deploy up to the islands with a very low footprint because we operate it on SATCOM. Next year GA-ASI is rolling out a laptop-controlled expeditionary command and control capability, which is able to support this aircraft with literally a couple of people operating out of a forward site, with everybody else located at the main operating site.”

“The big advantage with this concept is that you don’t need to have many people forward at a deployed site; and if you want to operate the aircraft from the ice, you don’t have a demanding environmental footprint.”

 

HADR superiority

HADR missions are where the MQ-9B SeaGuardian’s multi-intelligence and endurance really come to the fore.

In pre-disaster and post-disaster sorties flown recently before and after hurricanes in Texas and bushfires in California, the MQ-9B system analysis tools were able to produce exact destruction maps for emergency responders.

“Change detection – before and after analysis of imagery – can be very valuable in scenarios such as earthquakes, which are obviously relevant in the New Zealand context.”

“MQ-9B aircraft can loiter for a very long time; they don’t just provide a snapshot,” said Warren. “In the military context, rather than collecting intelligence we say that they’re collecting ‘pattern of life’ because they’re operating long enough to achieve this detail.”

Among the range of payload pods that the aircraft can carry on nine wing/fuselage stations include a ‘cell phone tower in the sky’ capability. A SeaGuardian flying over a site that’s just lost most of its infrastructure and communications can constitute a mobile cell phone tower that can provide communications relay for emergency services and military networks.

According to Warren, another pod can convert one radio format to another, “so if you’re on a network with a particular communication capability, you can still be interoperable with other units who might not be on the same network. And while the aircraft is up there providing comms relay and networking, it can continue to conduct high-definition radar or electro-optical intelligence gathering over the scene – whether over-land or in the maritime environment.”

 

Ticks in the right boxes

“The MQ-9B series, comprising the SeaGuardian and SkyGuardian, is the first RPAS built by anybody from the ground up to meet certification standards, said Warren. This applies to both the aircraft and Ground Control Station. “Why that’s important is if you want to operate this RPA in non-segregated or controlled airspace, the airspace regulators will require an established engineering baseline and a certifiable platform.”

“We’ve also developed a sense-and-avoid system for the aircraft comprised of air-to-air radar and TCAS, ADS-B and IFF, and the ability to blend that onboard to permit operations like a manned aircraft. It enables the RPAS to detect other platforms, while informing other platforms and air traffic control where it is.”

The sense-and-avoid systems and the certifiable baseline have permitted a GA-ASI aircraft to fly across the U.S. unescorted and, in early 2018, the FAA has approved a three-hour trial of the system in LAX airspace – a clear indication of the FAA’s confidence in the system.

If the link to the ground control station were to be broken, the aircraft will still be able to operate, avoid other aircraft, continue to let other aircraft know where it is, and recover itself to an appropriate airfield.

According to Warren, all of the MQ-9B SeaGuardian’s sensor and communication systems operate on known international and military standards. “Because it’s a U.S.-based system, if you wish to operate on sensitive coalition networks, then this system will allow seamless integration. The UK Royal Air Force is working with GA-ASI to incorporate a variant of the MQ-9B called ‘Protector’ into their operations.”

One problems that all of the forces face on operations is the lack of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) support. Should New Zealand require future participation in Coalition operations like it performed in Bamyan Province in Afghanistan, with the MQ-9B it would have the option of deploying its own ISR asset that was fully interoperable across the Coalition – it could make a huge difference to operations and protecting New Zealand lives. With the SeaGuardian, this interoperability is designed in. And the majority of personnel related to the capability need not be in theatre. 

 

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