General Atomics recently announced that it had successfully flight-tested a dispenser pod as part of a broader demonstration of anti-submarine warfare capabilities it is developing for its MQ-9B SeaGuardian drone. In this particular test, the pods were used to release sonobuoys, but the company has said that they will also be able to launch precision-guided munitions, as well as small unmanned aircraft, the latter of which could then potentially operate as an autonomous swarm.
The anti-submarine warfare test took place last November, with an MQ-9A carrying one of the 10-tube dispenser pods and other anti-submarine warfare (ASW) related systems as a surrogate for an MQ-9B SeaGuardian. The demonstration, which was conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Navy, involved the drone flying over that service's expansive test ranges off the coast of Southern California, while transmitting data to a ground operations center hundreds of miles away at the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.
“This demonstration is a first for airborne ASW,” said GA-ASI President David R. Alexander. “The successful completion of this testing paves the way for future development of more Anti-Submarine Warfare capabilities from our MQ-9s.”
During the test, the MQ-9A deployed 10 sonobuoys, in total. These included one AN/SSQ-36B, two AN/SSQ-62F Directional Command Activated Sonobuoy Systems (DICASS), and seven AN/SSQ-53G Directional Frequency Analysis and Recording (DIFAR) buoys. The AN/SSQ-36B is a bathythermograph type that can detect underwater objects by changes in water temperature. The DICASS is equipped with an active sonar, while the DIFAR passively gathers acoustic data. You can read more about how sonobuoys are used to search for enemy submarines in this past War Zone piece.
The drone relayed data from the array to personnel on the ground, who were then able to successfully spot and track a Navy Mk 39 Expendable Mobile Anti-Submarine Warfare Training Target (EMATT). The EMATT is a small torpedo-shaped device that simulates the acoustic and other signatures of a full-sized submarine.
Sonobuoys remain a critical part of modern ASW operations, with Russia notably announcing last year that it would equip its submarines with new expendable electronic warfare jammers as a countermeasure. The U.S. Navy, in particular, has been sounding the alarm in recent years about the growing threat posed by Russian, as well as Chinese, submarine fleets. Both countries are steadily increasing the size of their submarine forces, including the addition of more modern designs with various features that make them harder to detect and track underwater.
The clear benefits of MQ-9s, or any other type of drone for that matter, equipped to deploy sonobuoys is that this could help ease the burden on manned maritime patrol aircraft, as well as their crews, and provide a lower-cost capacity to rapidly deploy arrays of buoys over a broad area. The cost-per-flight-hour to operate an MQ-9-sized drone is significantly lower than that of the Navy's P-8A Poseidon, for example, as a direct product of the drones requiring fewer resources to operate and maintain.
In the future, a single P-8A working together with unmanned aircraft loaded with sonobuoys could cast a far wider net for enemy submarines in a shorter period of time without a dramatic need for additional manpower and other resources, something that could be particularly valuable in an expeditionary context. This would also turn the Poseidon and its crew effectively into the ASW battle manager on scene. The drones, acting anti-submarine "loyal wingmen" of sorts, could be redirected as necessary.
Since sonobuoys have limited battery life, during sustained operations, arrays need to re-seeded from time to time, too. Drones would be able to perform this re-seeding as required, as well, freeing up the manned aircraft to focus more on classifying, tracking, and potentially engaging contacts of interest.
Unmanned aircraft tending to sonobuoy arrays could also potentially do some pre-processing of the data before passing it along to other platforms, such as maritime patrol planes or ships hunting down below. Developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning could help automate the process of detecting and classifying potential threats, helping to weed out false positives or other unwanted information, to reduce the workload on actual human personnel.
The November 2020 test also underscored that other MQ-9 variants beyond the SeaGuardian, and potentially other types of unmanned aircraft, could carry these dispenser pods and operate in the ASW role. This could be of particular interest to the Marine Corps, which has been working to acquire a small fleet of Reapers and other larger drones in the past few years, and is also now looking at how it might be able to contribute to submarine hunting missions in the future. You can read more about those proposed concepts of operation in this past War Zone piece.
In recent months, the U.S. government has also approved a number of export sales of MQ-9Bs to be equipped with ASW packages or that could be fitted with them, including to the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan.
While all of these ASW-related developments are significant, General Atomics has also outlined broader plans for the dispenser pods in the past. Last year, it released an infographic on various existing or in development payloads for the MQ-9 series, including the dispensers, which a Reaper can carry up to four of at once. It mentioned the plans for the November sonobuoy test, but also said that it could be configured to release precision-guided munitions or small drones.
While the exact types of munitions General Atomics might be considering integrating into the pod are unclear, the infographic showed a Dynetics GBU-69/B Small Glide Munition (SGM) and said that dispenser was compatible with the Common Launch Tube (CLT). Various elements of the U.S. military, including Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and the U.S. Marine Corps, have been employing launchers using CLTs on multiple types of manned and unmanned aircraft. These include certain AC-130 gunship variants and KC-130 tanker-transports with the Harvest Hawk kit, as well as MQ-9s, for years now. The CLTs themselves can fire various small glide bombs, such as the GBU-44/B Viper Strike and GBU-69/B, as well as diminutive missiles, such as the AGM-176 Griffin.
Interestingly, back in 2018, Northrop Grumman also showed off models of dispensers for the MQ-9, as well as the U.S. Army's MQ-1C Gray Eagle, which were capable of carrying dozens of small precision-guided munitions at once. At the time, we at The War Zone highlighted how such a dispenser could significantly increase the magazine depth of an individual drone, allowing it to either engage more targets in a short period of time or provide more persistent firepower during longer-duration armed overwatch or similar missions over a particular part of the battlefield.
Launchers using CLTs have been used to deploy small drones from aircraft, as well. These include aerial launches of Raytheon's Coyote, which is also shown on the General Atomics infographic, as well as the Area-I Air-Launched, Tube-Integrated, Unmanned System 600 (ALTIUS 600).
The Army is notably working on acquiring a family of so-called Air Launch Effects (ALE), which it hopes will eventually include small air-launched drones equipped with various sensors and electronic warfare packages. Some ALEs could also be loitering munitions, also known as "suicide drones," capable of carrying out kinetic attacks directly. There are also plans for the various ALE types to be able to operate together as fully-autonomous swarms, which inherently have the capability to confuse and overwhelm enemy defenses, including in maritime enviornments. You can read more about this effort in this past War Zone piece.
If it could be adapted to the MQ-1C, one of the platforms the Army wants to integrate the ALEs onto, General Atomics' dispenser pod would certainly seem to be a good fit for the effort. Last year, General Atomics demonstrated the ability of the Gray Eagle to launch an ALTIUS 600 from a CLT under its wing.
Using the pods to launch drone swarms from larger unmanned aircraft flying further away from enemy air defenses could help breathe additional life into the MQ-9, which the Air Force views as increasingly vulnerable, especially in higher-end conflicts. The service, which is now looking for a Reaper replacement, presently dubbed MQ-Next, had sought to stop buying MQ-9s entirely, but Congress has blocked those plans, at least for the time being.
This would actually, in many ways, reflect the Army's plans regarding ALE-armed MQ-1Cs, which present the same survivability concerns. A contracting notice the service released last year offered some insight into their planned concepts of operation.
"Army Futures Command (AFC) has identified a future fight in an Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS)-rich environment where platforms must be survivable, attritable, or expendable to deliver sensing capabilities effectively where 1) The MQ-1C Gray Eagle flies racetrack patterns tangential to the IADS threat, at 80 km [~50 miles] distance, 2a) ALEs deploy from the MQ-1C Gray Eagle as the forward most element of the advanced team in areas of expected enemy contact in order to detect, identity, location and report (DILR) and attack/disrupt/decoy threat assets to initiate disintegration of the IADS," the notice read. A reference is made here to "attritable" platforms, which means designs that are low-cost enough for commanders to employ them in riskier situations that would preclude the use of a more expensive, exquisite assets.
The U.S. military, as a whole, is increasingly interested in swarming technology and has publicly demonstrated numerous developments in that regard in the past few years. These efforts have included additional experiments involving other air-launched drones, including multiple tests of the Perdix miniature unmanned aircraft deployed from flare launchers on U.S. Air Force F-16 Vipers and from underwing dispenser pods on U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornets between 2014 and 2016.
General Atomics has, of course, also been working on its own larger air-launched and air-recoverable drone, Sparrowhawk, with pictures showing a prototype underneath the wing of a Reaper. You can read more about that project in this past War Zone piece.
All told, these new dispensers for the MQ-9 look set to help enable the drone to take on all-new submarine-hunting missions. At the same time, the pods open the doors to significantly expanding the firepower of the Reaper, as well as potentially other drones, and help transform it into a platform able to send drone swarms heading into enemy territory.
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