The competition between General Atomics (GA) and Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) over their rival armed unmanned aerial systems (UAS) heated up this week with the news that the UK has chosen to buy the MQ-9B Protector, a variant of GA's MQ-9 Reaper drone.
General Atomics announced that the Royal Air Force will procure a weaponized version of the Protector under a $81 million foreign military sales contract.
The Protector can fly in excess of 40 hours with airspeeds up to 210 knots, reach altitudes of more than 40,000 feet, and carry an external payload of 2159 kilograms.
“The UK MOD and RAF are pleased with the progress of their MQ-9B Protector program and work continues at pace," Air Marshal Julian Young said. "Recently-reported Protector procurement schedule adjustments reflect the UK government managing the transition between getting the most out of our current Reaper aircraft, which is helping us defeat Daesh in the Middle East, and moving to the cutting-edge Protector.”
“The Protector programme... is a key capability for the UK.”
The MQ-9B Protector is the “Certifiable” version of GA’s MQ-9 Reaper UAS, which is currently used by the USAF. The Reaper is one of two competitors for Australia's Air 7003 program, which will provide RAAF with a medium-altitude long-endurance UAS as well as ground control stations.
The other competitor is IAI's Heron TP UAS. The RAAF operated the Heron 1 in Afghanistan before retiring the platform in 2017.
ADM Comment: Reports surfaced last year suggesting that RAAF was set to acquire the Reaper in order to achieve greater interoperability with the US, leading IAI to accuse Defence of a lack of transparency.
IAI's Shaul Shahar told the ABC that the Americans enjoyed favourable treatment and rejected the argument that GA's system provided greater interoperability. "We have more than 100 pilots, Australian pilots, that have been trained on our Heron-1 system," he said. "They used it for three years in Afghanistan successfully."
If interoperability with key allies is the RAAF's primary argument for choosing the American Reaper over the Israeli Heron, then the news that the UK has chosen a Reaper variant will strengthen its case. RAAF personnel are embedded with American units operating the Reaper in the US, and Australian pilots have flown American Reapers on operations over Syria.
Yet achieving interoperability does not necessarily mean that Australia must use exactly the same system as its allies. Interoperability is also a product of the same doctrines, protocols, standards, and components. The fact that Australian troops use a different standard issue assault rifle to our allies, for example, does not impact operational interoperability as all use similar doctrine and NATO standard 5.56 ammunition.
A UAS, of course, is a vastly more complex system than an assault rifle. Yet that does not make interoperability with allies more dependent on the choice of hardware. It remains an equal product of hardware, software, doctrine, standards, components, and other factors. As a case in point, Germany is a key US ally, yet is seriously considering choosing the Heron over the Reaper in a contract worth up to €1 billion.
This suggests the Bundeswehr has either found that the Heron does not significantly reduce interoperability, or acknowledged that it does and decided that this was outweighed by other advantages. Either scenario at the very least strengthens the case for a more competitive bidding process for Air 7003.
In the German example, it is General Atomics that has accused the government of a lack of transparency. The company filed a lawsuit “to ensure that this procurement is conducted as a fair and open competition", but the case was rejected by a German court.
A similar story may yet play out in the competition between GA and IAI over Air 7003.