General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) will conduct a number of demonstration flights in the Asia-Pacific region in 2020-21 and is working towards integrated operations in the region in the mid-2020s.
“These trials in the Asia Pacific region will demonstrate a range of capabilities, including operations in controlled/uncontrolled airspace,” says Tommy Dunehew, Vice President of International Strategic Development for GA-ASI, in an interview. “We are pursuing a range of potential programs in the Indo/Asia Pacific Region. These missions will build confidence with various regulators and pave the way for more extensive and continuing unrestricted operations.”
Dunehew, who is responsible for overseeing international capture initiatives across the company’s full line of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) systems, radars, and electro-optic and related mission systems for both military and commercial applications, also expressed confidence that the U.S. Administration’s new Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) export policy would ultimately expand the list of countries authorized to receive UAS. “This will allow us to compete on a more even basis with countries like China. We remain confident that our systems are far more capable and cost-effective than those of our competitors.”
GA-ASI ended 2019 on a high with the Australian Defence Force (ADF) selecting the MQ-9B SkyGuardian under Project Air 7003. How much of a momentum does that give the company for 2020 and ahead?
As a first-tier operator of advanced military systems and a nation that requires high levels of interoperability with key allies, including with its Five Eyes intelligence sharing partners, Australia’s decision to procure the MQ-9B is another important milestone in cementing MQ-9B as the unmanned system of choice around the world. This decision highlights the future-focused capabilities of the MQ-9B, the rich development path inherent in the design, and reflects the considerable interest GA-ASI is receiving from international customers. The MQ-9B is a key focus for GA-ASI into the future.
GA-ASI has introduced many new capabilities that considerably decrease operational costs of the MQ-9B by reducing the number of pilots and operators needed for various stages of operations. Can you talk about some of the new capabilities?
Reducing workforce demands is a key focus amongst our customers and GA-ASI has been working on a number of capabilities that offer resource cost-effectiveness. The P3E (Portable Pre/Post-Flight Equipment) and XC2 (Expeditionary Command & Control) capability enables the SATCOM launch and recovery of deployed aircraft utilizing a small number of personnel equipped with a ruggedized laptop for control of the aircraft. This capability is a key development now being rolled out to customers. GA-ASI is also working on a range of automated functions that enable the tasking and control of multiple aircraft, as well as automated processing, exploitation and dissemination of collected data. GA-ASI believes that these areas of automation offer the greatest potential to improve RPAS utility and expand the benefits they produce.
Given the strike abilities of GA-ASI RPA, do you think that the multi-mission capabilities of its aircraft are sometimes overlooked? In what ways is MQ-9B more than just a strike RPA?
Predator series aircraft pioneered strike capabilities almost 20 years ago and the capabilities that SkyGuardian and SeaGuardian now offer for precision and low collateral strike are the most trusted and recognized in the world. However, strike capabilities are often the culmination of many hours or days of intense ISREW (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare), which might see multi-INT electro-optical, radar and electronic systems all contributing to actionable intelligence. Of course, many missions, whether by U.S. forces or our overseas customers, focus purely on detailed ISR, whether overland, open ocean or in littoral regions. The MQ-9B’s ability to carry up to 4,800 lb/2,177 kg of payload, with both internal carriage and nine wing/fuselage pylons for external mounting, affords powerful and capable sensors to be carried. This payload capability and flexibility ensures the MQ-9B can be optimized for long range and endurance collection operations.
Many nations in the Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia regions, including India and Malaysia, are interested in the SeaGuardian for maritime surveillance purposes. What is it that makes the RPAS attractive for militaries?
The MQ-9B SeaGuardian possesses all of SkyGuardian’s attributes but adds the capability of a dedicated maritime surveillance radar and Automatic Identification System (AIS). GA-ASI has traditionally worked with both Raytheon and Leonardo (Selex) for maritime radars and with Raytheon and WESCAM for EO/IR systems to ensure our customers achieve the most capable maritime surveillance platform available on the market. When combined with the unmatched range and endurance of the MQ-9B, its ability to operate in adverse weather through use of anti-ice, de-ice, lightening protection and reinforced aircraft structure, the MQ-9B is the most capable and versatile RPAS on the market today.
What are some of the non-military applications for GA-ASI aircraft?
The utilization GA-ASI’s MQ-9 series aircraft occurs every day in non-military roles, such as border protection, support to law enforcement, and in response to civil emergencies such as forest fires, hurricanes/typhoons/cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis. The kinds of support our RPAS provide to non-military missions encompasses not only ISR, but also communications relay and support, including the provision of broadband communications services in affected areas. Our customers all seek multi-role, multi-domain capabilities that often see military forces providing support to civilian agencies, and even civilian agencies acquiring the capabilities for their own use. We expect this trend to become more pronounced in future years.
How far is GA-ASI in its efforts to make MQ-9B to be the first RPA to fly in civil airspace?
Our efforts to achieve the seamless integration of RPAS into controlled airspace and with manned aircraft has been underway for more than five years. We have worked with the FAA, NASA, European, UK, Australian and other nations’ airspace regulators to jointly develop systems, regulations and procedures to achieve this goal. While some development work remains to be completed, GA-ASI leads the world in this endeavor and continues to invest considerable internal research and development towards this goal. Almost all of our customers are demanding such capabilities and GA-ASI is well along the way to deliver a certifiable solution.
No country in Southeast Asia has signed on to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Does that make exporting your RPA to this region difficult?
While accession to non-proliferation regimes, such as the MTCR, is a factor when the US Government is reviewing a potential arms transfer, this Administration has made it clear through its UAS Export Policy that RPAS are an important capability for Allies and partner nations to acquire.
Unmanned Aerial Systems made by countries that are not bound by the MTCR are easily available to militaries. Does this adversely affect the export potential of GA-ASI UAS?
The US Administration’s UAS export policy was a significant first step in normalizing the treatment of UAS under US export controls. The policy seeks to increase trade opportunities for US companies and allow them to compete on a fair basis with international UAS manufacturers, while building critical US partner capacity and capabilities across the globe. While implementation of the policy remains slow, we believe it will ultimately expand the list of countries authorized to receive UAS, which will allow us to compete on a more even basis with countries like China. GA-ASI remains confident that our systems are far more capable and cost-effective than those of our competitors.
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