On the occasion of Euronaval event, Air&Cosmos interviewed Linden Blue, CEO of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.
Which RPA does GA-ASI offers on the market?
GA-ASI offers a variety of Medium-altitude, Long-endurance Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) to meet requirements for Air Force, Army, Navy and Civil Agencies for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and armed missions. GA-ASI’s unmanned aircraft family includes the MQ-9 Reaper, Gray Eagle Extended Range, Predator C Avenger, and the new MQ-9B SkyGuardian/SeaGuardian (land/maritime configurations, respectively). MQ-9B are type-certifiable to NATO airworthiness standards, and will support the needs of military, Border Forces, Coast Guards, and more to perform an even wider range of missions, from disaster response and search and rescue, to infrastructure inspection and terrain mapping.
What is GA-ASI position on the American, Asian and European markets?
RPAS from GA-ASI have operated for close to three decades and more than six million flight hours in support of U.S., French, and other international customers. GA-ASI aircraft are present worldwide to affordably meet ISR requirements for both civil and military missions. But even with these market opportunities opening up for our RPAS, there is still room for more innovation in order to fully leverage the capabilities of these platforms, particularly in teaming with manned aircraft. We are also improving the flexibility with which we can respond to customer ISR needs by growing our MQ-9 leasing fleet.
What were GA-ASI’s commercial successes in 2020?
First, we look forward to delivering the last of the MQ-9s ordered by the Spanish Air Force (final delivery expected in November). This year, we finalized the UK Protector production contract with the initial orders of a total planned 16 aircraft buy. In fact, the first Protector-configured MQ-9B completed its first flight on September 25th. We also recently completed the contract for MQ-9B SkyGuardian for Belgium. The French Air Force fielded weapons capability on its MQ-9s in 2020, and the last three of six French Air Force MQ-9 Block 5’s will be delivered before year-end. At the end of 2019, the Australian Government announced its selection of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian for the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Also noteworthy, the first U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) crew was qualified on the MQ-9A Reaper in support to its Afghanistan mission. The USMC also announced that they are transitioning from a lease model and are acquiring GA-ASI RPAS to perform multi-domain operations (MDO), including maritime surveillance. These decisions are clear signs that the MQ-9 family is meeting operational requirements for its customers.
We look forward to using our Avenger UAS as an early-start surrogate for the U.S. Air Force’s Skyborg program vision. We will fly it in November to demonstrate cognitive artificial intelligence and UAS automation. We will bring that into a series of large force exercises next year, when we will validate the air-to-air capability of disaggregated unmanned systems.
What are the main technological achievements of 2020?
One important advance this year is the full maritime surveillance system integration into the MQ-9B. The capability will be flying in Japan starting in October, and then next year in Canada and Europe. We also participated in Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) demonstrations for the U.S. Army, and with the U.S. Air Force on Advanced Battle Management Systems (ABMS) demos and test flights featuring our captive-carry Sparrowhawk Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS). The Sparrowhawk sUAS is designed as an airborne launch and recovery demonstrator aircraft tailored to fit GA-ASI platforms, and is a key ABMS technology.
Specific to Europe and our NATO partners, we announced the joint development of the NATO Pod in partnership with SENER Aeroespacial, a Spanish technology firm, in September. The NATO Pod will be designed and built by SENER for integration onto our MQ-9 aircraft line of RPA to increase its payload configuration options.
NATO Pod development is driven by our “Open Architecture” initiative to provide configuration flexibility for sovereign ISR sensors that can be integrated onto MQ-9A and MQ-9B systems. GA-ASI and SENER will work with European suppliers to add sensor capabilities to this new European-built payload pod that will meet NATO airworthiness standards. The NATO Pod is a flexible, scalable, certifiable, aerodynamic and low-cost enclosure that enables customers to add sovereign sensor capabilities developed in their respective countries using a common set of interfaces to the aircraft system, which will reduce integration time and cost.
Furthermore, we will flight test our “Self-Protection Pod” which features European-sourced countermeasures against various surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).
What is the impact of Covid-19 on your business?
Like a lot of companies, we have had to adapt the way we work to continue production and maintain the activity of our design offices and deployment sites in support of our customers. Except for production, flight operations and customer-site deployment activities, we use remote work very widely and effectively. Individual social distancing and protective measures, like those applied in Europe, have helped to limit the impact of Covid in production, logistics, and operations activities. We are very proud that our precautionary measures have not only kept our workforce protected from Covid, but have avoided significant delays to our product development and customer support. GA-ASI has continued to deliver on-time throughout the pandemic period.
Can you introduce the Defender system?
Defender is a concept that highlights the capability of extending the traditional mission of our RPAS. Defender could be used for air defense to protect high-value airborne assets, such as tankers and big-wing ISR platforms, or the “outside force.” This force, with Defender ensuring safe sanctuary, would support the penetrating “inside force” that operates in more contested regions of the battlespace.
What is GA-ASI’s interest in Euronaval?
GA-ASI appreciates all the effort that goes into organizing such a big event, particularly given the challenges of doing so during the worldwide health crisis. For Euronaval, our principal objective is to show visitors our company´s range of innovative RPAS, radars, electro-optic sensors, and related mission systems, with a strong focus on maritime ISR. Our integrated platform and payload systems exist to deliver critical, real-time ISR information to government and military decision makers, persistently and affordably.
Developing these systems involves key partnerships, so industrial cooperation remains one of the cornerstones of our company´s business strategy. Euronaval will give us the opportunity to highlight the strong collaboration we have with SENER Aeroespacial, with whom we have partnered on the NATO Pod, as well as existing European partners for airframe, landing gear, radomes, ATC radios, sensor payloads, HMI-design and MRO. We will also look forward to meeting with other industrial partners in search of mutually beneficial relationships as part of the production and sustainment enterprise for our growing set of European MQ-9 customers.
Which systems sold by GA-ASI can be operated in maritime environment?
All versions of our RPA are capable of operating in a maritime environment. In September, three MQ-9As supported the Navy and Marine Corps during Agile Reaper, an exercise off the California coast. Agile Reaper demonstrated the capability to rapidly move the MQ-9 anywhere in the world, to unfamiliar locations, and the ways it can provide maritime domain awareness to joint service partners.
We also used our MQ-9A as part of a two-week event at the end of 2019 that was based in Greece and demonstrated our maritime capabilities over the Aegean Sea. The flights were sponsored by the Hellenic Air Force (HAF) and the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) and the flights were performed for an audience of European military and civilian representatives. Attendees were able to see the value of MQ-9s for maritime patrol and EEZ monitoring, border surveillance, support for search and rescue efforts, and overwatch of forest fire response efforts.
We now look forward to a set of validation flights in Japan using our MQ-9B SeaGuardian configuration. The flights start in October and will showcase the aircraft’s affordable, long-endurance, airborne surveillance capabilities for the maritime domain.
Which sensors and technologies embedded on UAV brings added value for maritime missions?
We provide a suite of sensors and other technologies for maritime missions. For the Japan validation flights, the SeaGuardian will feature a multi-mode maritime surface-search radar with Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) imaging mode, an Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver, and High-Definition - Full-Motion Video sensor equipped with optical and infrared cameras, as well as SIGINT capabilities. This sensor suite enables real-time detection and identification of surface vessels over thousands of nautical miles.
And we’re testing other maritime solutions, including Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) with organic sonobuoy capability and Link-16 for disseminating sensor tracks and teaming with manned patrol aircraft.
What are your objectives for 2025?
We expect the next five years will produce numerous advancements in our RPAS technology, new missions for our existing technology, and new partnership paths for customers around the world. Key focus areas are: automation, open architecture and Allied-interoperability, correlation of various sensor data streams to provide usable information, diverse datalink improvements for resiliency and higher bit-rates, and full integration of RPAS into civilian airspace. Many of our international partnerships are now coming online and will mature during that time, providing unrivaled opportunities for those nations to achieve their current objectives, while likely opening new doors for expanded missions and increased cooperation. But we are not resting on those achievements alone. We are focused on ensuring our unmanned systems remain the most innovative and effective RPAS in the world, by developing cognitive artificial intelligence and UAS automation solutions and advanced capabilities. We are exploring new avenues for our future systems, and pushing the limits of endurance and engagement across defense, homeland security and disaster response mission areas. The world is fundamentally changing when it comes to UAS technology, and we are working to ensure our RPA remain the ISR asset of choice for all our customers.
What do you think of the Euromale project?
Development of new systems always pushes technology forward. As the world leader in unmanned aircraft, we strive to provide our global customers with affordable solutions tailored to their specific ISR requirements, including open architecture for flexible configuration of mission systems. We’ve produced more than 900 aircraft and every moment of every day, approximately 70 GA-ASI aircraft are flying in support of Allied forces. We appreciate the confidence that European nations have shown us in their selection of MQ-9 RPAS. We have formed important partnerships with government and industry throughout the continent, enabling us to produce and support the world’s best RPAS. We will continue to move the industry forward through our advanced technologies, and remain focused on making our aircraft the most valuable asset in any fleet it serves.