USAF Special Ops Buys MQ-9B SkyGuardians To Test Air-Launched Drone Concepts

The Air Force Special Operations Command will acquire three MQ-9B SkyGuardians to help develop the new Adaptive Airborne Enterprise concept.

byEmma Helfrich|
MQ-9 Special Operations Sky Guardian
General Atomics

U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) will be procuring MQ-9B SkyGuardian remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) to prove a concept that would see them used as launch platforms for smaller, more expendable drones. The SkyGuardians would employ the smaller drones at a safe distance from enemy air defenses, sending them into riskier, less permissible environments.

The SkyGuardian is an evolution of the earlier MQ-9A Reaper that has been designed with more range, payload capacity, and endurance, along with other improvements. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI), which makes the Q-9 family of aircraft, announced the new contract with the AFSOC in a Monday press release. Under the deal, the company will provide AFSOC, which has already been flying the Reaper for over 14 years, with three SkyGuardians. 

The procurement makes AFSOC the first U.S. buyer of the SkyGuardian platform. A number of international customers have already purchased the RPA, including the U.K., Japan, and Belgium. GA-ASI did not mention if the same concepts will be explored using SkyGuardian’s maritime variant, the MQ-9B SeaGuardian.

“We’re very excited to continue our great partnership with AFSOC well into the future,” said David R. Alexander, president of GA-ASI. “MQ-9B is the ideal platform for inserting air-launched effects [ALEs] into potentially hostile environments. The MQ-9B’s combination of range, endurance, reduced manpower footprint, and overall flexibility will make it a true centerpiece of AFSOC’s future family of advanced UAS systems.”

The GA-ASI press release says that the SkyGuardians will play a key role in fleshing out the AFSOC’s new Adaptive Airborne Enterprise (A2E) concept. In fact, this will be SkyGuardian’s primary objective with the outfit. As Lt. Col. Rebecca Heyse, director of public affairs for the AFSOC told The War Zone, the MQ-9Bs currently slated for AFSOC will not be used operationally.

Heyse explained that the AFSOC’s SkyGuardians will instead “be used to rapidly pathfind A2E concepts and technologies, planned to include sUAS and autonomy integration, beginning in calendar year 2024.” She also added that AFSOC expects to take possession of its first SkyGuardian by the end of this year. 

MQ-9B SkyGuardian flies across the Atlantic for the RAF100 event. Credit: GA-ASI

Additional information about A2E was also offered by Lt. Gen. Tony D. Bauernfeind at the Global SOF Special Air Warfare Symposium in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Defense One, which was in attendance for the event, reported that Bauernfeind described A2E as being a "three-phase initiative to develop airborne human-machine teams commanding a family of uncrewed and optionally crewed” aircraft.

Bauernfeind told the audience that launching highly autonomous swarms from MQ-9 variants for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and potentially even strike missions is a primary goal of A2E.

With the help of artificial intelligence, he envisions drones of both small and medium sizes comprising the A2E swarms and ultimately reducing the number of humans needed to operate it down to just one.

An MQ-9 Reaper flies a training mission over the Nevada Test and Training Range, July 15, 2019. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class William Rio Rosado

GA-ASI's brief description of A2E largely lines up with Bauernfeind's but with SkyGuardian as the specific launch platform of choice. In realizing the A2E concept, AFSOC’s three new SkyGuardians will essentially become drone motherships for smaller more expendable uncrewed aerial systems (UAS).

A2E would allow the SkyGuardians, which are large, slower unmanned aircraft that operate at medium to high altitudes, to fly in more permissible environments while sending the smaller UASs out ahead into more dangerous airspace. Overall, the introduction of this capability would line up with what has been an ongoing effort on GA-ASI’s part to bolster the MQ-9's survivability and keep the drone relevant and survivable in future high-end fights. 

A rendering of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian and SeaGuardian side by side. Credit: GA-ASI

“In contested or denied environments, AFSOC is shifting from multiple operators controlling a single MQ-9A to a single Air Commando directing a family of systems,” Heyse said. “A2E is a concept that marks the evolution from exclusively using the MQ-9 platform for intelligence gathering and strike capabilities to using a family of uncrewed and optionally crewed systems to achieve battlefield effects.”

“MQ-9 units will leverage multiple platforms and incorporate autonomy and eventually artificial intelligence technologies to deliver capabilities to SOF, the AF, and the joint force across the spectrum of operations,” Heyse added.

Development of the SkyGuardian was driven in large part by an international need for a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) RPA that was certified to fly in civilian airspace. The aircraft has a maximum take-off weight of 12,500 pounds and flight endurance of over 40 hours, providing it with the capacity to be equipped with various armaments and sensor payloads to perform strike, ISR, and a number of other emerging missions, like stand-in jamming support.

An infographic showing various payloads General Atomics has or is developing for the MQ-9. Credit: General Atomics

However, RPAs of this type were really designed to operate in lower-risk airspaces and can be vulnerable to an adversary’s robust integrated air defense systems when flying through or even near more contested environments. This can make it difficult for RPAs like SkyGuardian to safely get to the target areas necessary to successfully leverage its ISR and strike capabilities, further contributing to arguments against the relevancy of these systems. 

This is where air-launched effects, like those being conceptualized under the AFSOC’s new A2E initiative, will come into play. Being adapted to perform their own ISR and strike missions, or others, the smaller and more expendable UASs will thereby extend the operational reach and lethality of their launch platform, like SkyGuardian, all while keeping it directly out of harm’s way.

This is something that GA-ASI is also exploring with a U.S. Army-owned MQ-1C Gray Eagle Extended Range drone. Just last month the company completed the Gray Eagle’s first flight with an air-launched and recoverable drone dubbed Eaglet, which is discussed in this past War Zone piece. The company is seemingly pitching it as an option for the Army's ALE program that is working to establish its own family of air-launched multi-purpose unmanned aircraft. 

Photo from the February test flight when Eaglet was launched from an MQ-1C. Credit: GA-ASI

During the 2022 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, GA-ASI also touted Eaglet’s intended compatibility with the Reaper, though there have yet to be any publicized flight tests with the pairing.

“The UAS can launch its Eaglets forward into hostile airspace, where this ALE quartet can work in four-part harmony to extend the sensing envelope of the host UAS, provide electronic or kinetic warfare options, or simply disrupt an adversary’s mission planning,” C. Mark Brinkley, senior director of strategic communications & marketing for GA-ASI, told The War Zone during that event.

While there is no indication that the Army’s ALE and the AFSOC’s A2E are directly related, the efforts share very similar goals. Eaglet is even designed with low-observable (stealthy) features, which could be a characteristic we see from A2E’s drones knowing that GA-ASI will be taking the requirements of special operations forces, which often operate in contested environments, into account.

The Army’s ALE program will also offer a ‘small’ and 'large' category of drones that may be more representative of the types of effects that could come from AFSOC’s A2E concept. The small drones will be under 100 pounds, possibly no more than 50 pounds, and will be able to cruise at 30 knots over a distance of 100 kilometers for at least 30 minutes. Though, the Army is ultimately hoping for a 150-kilometer range and an hour of flight time. 

There's even the possibility that A2E drones operating in a networked swarm could be programmed and equipped to perform disparate functions — like scouting, jamming, or striking — with the swarm acting cooperatively to achieve certain objectives. The Army is assessing how its own ALE swarms could be employed in this way.

A graphic showing how various types of Air Launch Effects fired from various platforms could be employed on a future battlefield. Credit: U.S. Army

The A2E drones for AFSOC’s SkyGuardians could inevitably become something like the Area-I Agile-Launch Tactically Integrated Unmanned System (ALTIUS) 600, as well. Launching the ALTIUS-600 from drone platforms like the Gray Eagle while in flight has already been tested to some degree of success.

An MQ-9 flying hundreds of miles away in safer airspace and at higher altitudes could also act as a line-of-sight data fusion and relay node for the smaller drones it has sent downrange. In doing so, it could collect their data via a line-of-sight datalink and then parse that huge amount of data, and relay any valuable information virtually anywhere in the world via satellite uplink in near-real time. It could also relay that info to other platforms in the area and even data entry points on the ground and at sea in its vicinity.

Regardless, the budding relationship between AFSOC, its new SkyGuardians, and the developing A2E program is already reminiscent of a number of other ongoing projects that seek to pair larger UASs with smaller drones. Giving these drones and their operators the option of extending their capabilities in this way while boosting survivability will be key to dominating future battlefields while also keeping currently vulnerable unmanned platforms relevant. 

Author’s note: Howard Altman contributed to this report.

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