• (Supplied)
  • (Supplied)

Under Project Air 7003, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) will acquire the MQ-9B SkyGuardian Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) to provide ISREW and Strike Support to the Joint Force.

While initially employed in an overland ISR and strike role by U.S. forces, including wide use in the Middle East Area of Operations, more recent employment of MQ-9-series RPAS has seen the U.S. and other operators expand to maritime and multi-domain operations to meet the growing demand of the strategic environment, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.

One criticism of the MQ-9 platform and of other large RPAS, including the RQ-4/ MQ-4 Global Hawk/Triton, is that they are vulnerable in a contested environment due to their relatively low speed and predictable flight profile. In Australia’s strategic environment, operation of such RPAS in a contested environment, like the South China Sea, could significantly limit their employment unless appropriate mitigations were in place, this criticism holds.

So, can the MQ-9B, which offers invaluable ISREW and strike capability, perform effectively in a contested environment while avoiding high attrition rates?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is that, in analysing this question, it is first important to consider the relative differences between lower-cost RPAS platforms, which may cost tens of millions of dollars, and manned airborne capital assets, which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. While assets of the MQ-9B class should not generally be considered “expendable”, the possible loss of one compared to losing a E-7A Wedgetail or P-8A Poseidon, particularly if the intelligence sought is considered a Commander’s Critical Information Requirement (CCIR), may be, if not acceptable, preferable. RPAS not only extend and enhance the capabilities of human-crewed, high-value air assets, but they also contribute significantly to the joint force by helping to protect their irreplaceable crews.

Phases of Conflict

It is also important to differentiate between the phases of a potential conflict and the levels of threat posed across the operating area to understand MQ-9B’s capabilities and limitations.

The period prior to actual conflict is often termed Phase 0. In this phase, which might include wide-area, cross-domain, grey-zone operations, threats might be limited to jamming, cyber intrusions, physical harassment and other forms of non-lethal engagement. ISREW operations will predominate during this period and the MQ-9B could expect considerable employment to inform and warn of escalation. Noting that operations against an adversary might never extend beyond Phase 0 – or that Phase 0 may be very lengthy, as has been suggested for a potential operation in the South China Sea – employment of an MQ-9B is well suited.

It performs low-cost, long-endurance missions and could help reduce the workload on manned capital assets and retain their employment for more focused operations. It might also prevent disclosure of tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) employed by the capital assets until required in Phase 1.

Phase 1 operations commence with hostilities, and the threat level to all platforms will be high when competing with a near-peer adversary. Attrition amongst manned aircraft could be expected and under these circumstances all platforms, including the MQ-9B, would require specific force-level and platform TTPs to minimise losses. This wouldn’t mean that each MQ-9B automatically was a sitting duck. Tactics for employing these aircraft always are evolving, as is the equipment they can carry – for example, new self-protection pods described in more detail below.


Phase 2 operations commence when some level of control is obtained in the operating area and friendly forces have the opportunity to take the offensive against an adversary. During this phase, while tailored TTPs will still be necessary for the MQ-9B to operate effectively, the expanded freedom of operations will again make it an invaluable platform for wide-area ISREW and strike operations. In the vast air and maritime domain environments of the Western Pacific, it is critical to locate and maintain custody of targets, a role for which UAS are ideal when integrated into a sophisticated multi-domain force like that of Australia and its allies.

While these TTPs will vary depending on the phase of operations, those possible during Phase 1 and Phase 2 deserve specific attention.

Force Packaging

A common technique for asset protection is force packaging; that is, combining a range of assets with specific roles to achieve the outcome sought. If the outcome is to collect specific intelligence, a force package which protects ISREW assets could be constructed. This might include active EW protection, and anti-air and/ or anti-surface capabilities. It is important to note that it is not just an MQ-9B that would require packaging protection during Phases 1 and 2. All airborne capabilities will require these measures.

Clearly, platform self-protection is a highly desirable capability in a high-threat environment. To be effective, this system would need to protect against both IR and RF threats. A self-protection system to defeat IR and RF threats has been designed specifically for the MQ-9-series RPAS and is cleared for use. While this system is in an external pod, and so will consume available payload/fuel and thus reduce range and endurance, the threat level may warrant its carriage.

Another particular advantage of the MQ-9B is endurance. In an operational configuration, endurance in excess of 24 hours is feasible. This endurance permits employment which can avoid temporal threats; the ability to wait until the tactical threat in a particular area dissipates before conducting operations.

Forward Operating Base

Another consideration for operations in the South China Sea is the Forward Operating Base location. With an impressive range, the MQ-9B can operate a considerable distance from the operating area, thereby avoiding some threats. Moreover, with an operating runway requirement of just 4,000 feet, and the ability to perform automatic take-off and landing via SATCOM control, the MQ-9B has the ability to dynamically reposition throughout the operating area from mission to mission. This capability reduces its predictability and the ground threat, which extends to the safety of support personnel. With its portable launch and recovery system, and as few as three to four support personnel, the MQ-9B presents a particularly low footprint at a Forward Operating Base. An aircraft could launch from allied base A, fly a patrol, land at allied base B, refuel and rearm, if necessary, take another mission, land at base C and so on – complicating the challenge for adversaries.

Operations in a contested environment also need to consider electronic threats, including GPS and SATCOM jamming. Without providing specific details, the MQ-9B possesses state-of-the-art anti-jam capabilities and redundant systems for both GPS and SATCOM to mitigate jamming threats. The MQ-9B is capable of fully-automated operations, enabling it to independently conduct a mission and return to base even if it loses the link to the ground control station.

From a sensor point of view, the MQ-9B is able to operate very effectively with powerful, stand-off, long-range EO/IR sensors and Electronic Surveillance systems. If there is a desire for covert operations, then radar or other active sensors might not be employed. These passive or covert operations also add to the suite of TTPs available to the MQ-9B.

So, when considering whether the MQ-9B is capable of operating in a contested environment such as on operations in the South China Sea, many considerations are relevant. The MQ-9B does not have the defensive and survivability strengths of a manned F-35. However, when using its organic strengths, along with tailored TTPs to maximise its ISREW and Strike contributions to various phases of an operation, it makes a cost-effective, versatile and flexible contribution.

Air Marshal (Retd) Geoff Shepherd AO is a former Chief of Air Force and consults for GA-ASI.

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