• The MQ-9B Sky Guardian. 
Credit: General Atomics
    The MQ-9B Sky Guardian. Credit: General Atomics

The Defense Security Co-operation Agency (DSCA) announced on April 23 that the US State Department has approved the possible sale of up to 12 General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) MQ-9B SkyGuardian aircraft and associated equipment to Australia.

The approval of the US1.6 billion (A$2.05 billion) deal represents the latest step in the RAAF’s Air 7003 Phase 1 program, aimed at acquiring a medium altitude long endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (MALE UAV) capability. Air 7003 Phase 1 is expected to be presented to Government for Gate 2 approval in mid-2022.

Significantly, the DSCA announcement confirms that Australia will follow the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) path for the project and, in the equipment included under the deal, is a maritime active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, together with Automatic Identification System (AIS) system, pointing to an enhanced maritime ISR role for Australia’s SkyGuardians. The RAAF MQ-9Bs will be delivered with Leonardo’s 7500E V2 multi-mode maritime radar, carried in a pod on the centreline station.

Other major equipment included in the deal includes 15 Raytheon AN/DAS-4 Multi-Spectral Targeting Systems (MST-D) electro-optic infra-red (EO/IR) sensors, 16 GA-ASI AN/APY-8 Lynx Synthetic Aperture Radars with Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) capability, 15 Rio Communications intelligence (COMINT) systems, 36 Embedded GPS/INS (EGI) systems with Selective Availability Anti-Spoofing Modules (SAASM) and Leonardo’s SAGE electronic support measures (ESM) systems.

Weapons included in the approval included limited numbers of guidance kits for the RAAF’s existing Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and Paveway II bombs, AGM-114 Hellfire training missiles and launch rails, which will possibly support validation and verification work in Australia.

GA-ASI had previously announced in January that it was working with Leonardo to integrate the Seaspray radar onto the MQ-9B SeaGuardian variant, to offer a persistent maritime ISR capability to its international customers.

“The Seaspray 7500 V2 radar is well-suited to the SeaGuardian mission set, using AESA technology to detect, track, and classify hundreds of maritime contacts. The integration will also include an Open Mission System (OMS) approach, which enables the SeaGuardian and its sensor suite to offer operational and sustainment flexibility to end users,” GA-ASI said in a statement at the time.

“Numerous countries use Seaspray E-scan radars and the company has utilised operational feedback from these customers to expand and optimise the radar’s suite of advanced modes. These include Leonardo’s patented small target detection capability, allowing it to spot extremely difficult targets such as submarine periscopes and shipwrecked individuals at long range, even in very stormy seas.”

The United Arab Emirates has also selected the Seaspray radar for its MQ-9Bs and in February, GA-ASI announced that it will demonstrate the capability, fitted to a company-owned SkyGuardian, to the Royal Air Force and NATO customers in the UK in July, culminating in its participation in the UK-led Joint Warrior exercise.

GA-ASI was announced as the preferred solution for Air 7003 Phase 1 in November 2018 and the selection of the MQ-9B variant was confirmed in November 2019. If Gate 2 Approval occurs in Mid-2022 as expected, deliveries to Australia are anticipated in the 2023/2024 timeframe with Initial Operational Capability (IOC) to follow 12 months later.

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