General Atomics – The Power House of Unmanned Systems

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General Atomics is an American energy and defence corporation with interests in diversified technologies. It was founded on July 18, 1955 as a Division of General Dynamics, in San Diego, California, by Frederic de Hoffmann with assistance from notable physicists Edward Teller and Freeman Dyson “for harnessing the power of nuclear technologies for the benefit of mankind”. GA’s first offices were in the General Dynamics facility on Hancock Street in San Diego. GA also used a schoolhouse on San Diego’s Barnard Street as its temporary headquarters, which it would later “adopt” as part of its Education Outreach program. In 1956, San Diego voters approved the transfer of land to GA for permanent facilities in Torrey Pines, and the John Jay Hopkins Laboratory for Pure and Applied Science was formally dedicated there on June 25, 1959. The Torrey Pines facility continues to serve as the company’s headquarters today. General Atomics’s initial projects were the TRIGA nuclear research reactor, and Project Orion. GA helped developed and run the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

1967 Aerial View of General Atomics Headquarters. Image Source: sandiego.gov

In 1967, the company was sold to Gulf Oil and renamed Gulf General Atomic. In 1973, it was renamed “General Atomic Company” when Royal Dutch Shell Group’s Scallop Nuclear Inc. became a 50–50 partner. In 1982, it was renamed “GA Technologies Inc” when Gulf bought out its partner. It was taken over by Chevron following its merger with Gulf Oil. Finally in 1986, it was bought by a company owned by Neal Blue and Linden Blue and got its current name. In 1993 it was called General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI).

General Atomics Assembly Line. San Diego. Image Source: sandiegouniontribune.com

Still Headquarters in San Diego, California, United States, GA and affiliated companies operate on five continents and include GA Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI). GA-ASI produces a series of unmanned aircraft and provides electro-optical, radar, signals intelligence, and automated airborne surveillance systems. GA’s Electromagnetic Systems Division produces electro-magnetic aircraft launch and recovery systems for the US Navy, satellite surveillance, electro-magnetic rail gun, high power laser, hypervelocity projectile, and power conversion systems. GA is the principal private sector participant in thermonuclear fusion research through its internationally recognised DIII-D and inertial confinement programs for the US Department of Energy. GA developed the UCSD Supercomputer Center and has constructed more than 60 TRIGA nuclear research reactors in 24 countries. GA is a leader in development of next-generation nuclear fission and high-temperature materials technologies. It is San Diego County’s GA is the largest defence contractor. In September 2020, a $7.4 billion contract for MQ-9 Reaper drones was announced between the U.S. Air Force and General Atomics. The contract calls for the delivery of up to 36 aircraft per year.

Other GA affiliates include General Atomics Europe GmbH with principal facilities in the German States of Saxony and Brandenburg, Heathgate Resources Pty Ltd (South Australia), GA Uranium Resources Group, Diazyme Laboratories Inc., and the GA-Honeywell uranium conversion partnership. The group occupies 8 million-plus square feet of engineering, laboratory and manufacturing facilities and comprises over 15,000 employees.

Advanced Technologies and Materials

General Atomics pioneers advanced technologies with cutting edge of energy innovation since the dawn of the atomic age, more than 60 years. Magnetic fusion research at GA led to vital scientific discoveries as well as spinoff technologies that have advanced the state of the art in medical diagnostics, transportation, semiconductors, electronics, and defence applications.GA has developed a variety of advanced materials for nuclear and other challenging applications and their affiliates also supply uranium and related services. General Atomics was one of the pioneering firms in nuclear energy. They sold first reactor in 1958, the same year as the first commercial reactor in the U.S. came online.

Defence

GA is heavily into researching, designing, and manufacturing transformational technologies to support critical land, sea, air and space operations worldwide. The diverse portfolio includes first-of-kind electromagnetic aircraft launch and recovery systems (EMALS), multi-mission railgun weapon systems, satellite systems, and integrated power and energy technologies are helping revolutionize the way military forces address complex challenges and protect against evolving threats. They are one of the top companies in unmanned systems.

General atomics breakthrough enables greater control of fusion energy. Image Source: eurekalert.org

Electromagnetic Systems Group

The Electromagnetic Systems (EMS) Group is a supplier of electromagnetic systems and related power equipment for a variety of defence, energy, and commercial transportation applications. EMS has expertise in the design and fabrication of linear motors, superconducting and conventional rotating motors, power inverters, high-voltage DC power distribution systems, and numerous other energy conversion, distribution, and storage systems. EMS is a major factor in applying electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) and Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) technologies, projectile launch (Navy railgun), and magnetic levitation transportation systems. GA’s EMALS and system are successfully installed and tested on U.S. Navy Ford-class carriers. EMALS and AAG are well suited for a variety of platforms and are capable of launching and recovering a wide range of aircraft. GA-EMS’ laser weapon systems for land, sea, and air platforms are designed to arm the future force with capabilities to counter a range of existing and emerging threats. Their multi-mission railgun weapon system provides highly effective capabilities to enhance a nation’s ability to defend against threats on land, sea, and air.

Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). Image Source: navalnews.net

Batteries, Power, and Energy

GA-EMS specializes in power conversion, energy storage, and power generation technologies. They offer high voltage capacitors, scalable battery systems, high speed electric motors and generators, and adjustable speed drives for maritime, land, air, and undersea applications. GA-EMS’ unique cryofracture, industrial Supercritical Water Oxidation (iSCWO), and neutralization systems safely and thoroughly destroy conventional and complex munitions stockpiles and a broad range of hazardous and non-hazardous waste. GA is also developing a Generation IV reactor design, the Gas Turbine Modular Helium Reactor (GT-MHR). In 2010, General Atomics presented a new version of the GT-MHR, the Energy Multiplier Module (EM2), which uses fast neutrons and is a Gas-cooled fast reactor.

Image Source: General Atomics

General Atomics and Laser Development

David Hambling, the author of “Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world,” writes that the military, world over, has been striving to build a laser powerful enough to make an effective weapon. In recent years almost all the military focus has been on electrically-powered solid-state fibre lasers. These are based on specially doped coils of fibre optic lasing material, and putting several of them together has produced weapons which have crossed the 10 kilowatt, 20 and now 50-kilowatt power level. The U.S. Navy has already fielded the shipboard 30-kilowatt LAwS laser weapon, and is now developing the 150-kW HELIOS. The U.S. Air Force working on a defensive weapon for aircraft known as SHiELD (Self-protect High-Energy Laser Demonstrator) which may eventually protect F-35s from missiles, said to be in the “tens of kilowatts range.” The U.S. Army is pushing ahead with the truck-mounted Indirect Fires Protection Capability-High Energy Laser (IFPC-HEL) and the U.S. Marine Corps is working on the smaller Compact Laser Weapon System, or CLaWS, to knock out drones. There are many, many others at different stages of development. Such weapons fall well short of the level needed to damage aircraft or missiles, let alone tanks or other battlefield targets. Shooting down ballistic missiles will require megawatts. HELIOS and IFPC-HEL are currently pushing at the 100 kW barrier, but there are doubts about just how high they can go. A key problem is thermal management – coping with the vast quantities of waste heat produced by the laser equipment.

Now General Atomics is working with Boeing BA to finally realise the goal of a truly weapons-grade laser using new ‘liquid laser’ technology to break through the barrier holding back current devices. The original ruby laser had an output of a fraction of watt, and could not be scaled up. Many other types of laser have been developed over the last sixty years. In 2015, General Atomics, with funding from DARPA, produced a prototype ‘High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense system’ (HELLADS). The liquid laser is actually a solid-state device, but with channels built into the solid material to allow cooling liquid to circulate. This only works if the cooling liquid has exactly the same refractive index as the solid material so there is no optical boundary between them – a block of the solid would be invisible in a bowl of the coolant (unlike, say, glass in water, which is visible from the refraction and reflection at the interface between the two materials). The powerful, compact HELLADS liquid laser could be mounted on a General Atomics Avenger drone. At the time it was built, the 150-kW HELLADS was claimed to be the most powerful electrically-powered laser ever made. Now General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems has announced it is teaming up with Boeing to develop a 100 kW liquid laser system, with plans to scale it up to 250 kW for air and missile defence applications. The project will mate GA’s laser technology with Boeing’s beam director and precision aiming system.

Back in 2015, the liquid laser had a power density of 4 kilos per kilowatt, so the 150-kW laser weight was 600 kilos. Since then the technology has gone through several more generations and is now significantly more efficient. This type of weapon could easily fit not just on to ships, but also aircraft, small ground vehicles and even drones.

‘High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense system’ (HELLADS). Image Source: airforce-technology.com

Satellite and Space Systems

GA-EMS’ also builds customised flexible satellite platforms, payloads, and integrated support systems to help customers launch new missions, demonstrate new technologies, and cost efficiently explore the possibilities of space.

General Atomics NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock Mission.Image Source: http://www.ga.com

Remotely Piloted Aircraft

GA-ASI’s Aircraft Systems Group produces the Predator series of remotely piloted aircraft used in the Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan conflicts. GA-ASI’s Reconnaissance Systems Group provides tactical reconnaissance radars, as well as high-resolution surveillance systems for both manned and unmanned aircraft.

GA-ASI’s innovations and high-tech solutions have produced a growing line of versatile, reliable, cost-effective, and proven Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA). GA’s multi-mission remotely piloted aircraft include the MQ-9A “Reaper”, MQ-9B SkyGuardian / SeaGuardian, Avenger, Gray Eagle ER among others. They come with in-house ground control stations and communications, Integrated Intelligence Center, Radars, Multi-Mission Payloads, Detect and Avoid System. GA-ASI has developed a variant of the Predator ‘B’ RPA series that meets NATO standards (STANAG-4671), and in cooperation with the FAA, will subsequently meet airworthiness certification standards domestically and around the world.

General Atomics MQ-9A “Reaper”. Image Source: militaryaerospace.com

The turboprop-powered, multi-mission MQ-9A “Reaper” RPA was developed with GA-ASI funding and first flown in 2001. Similarly, Predator B, Predator C Avenger were developed through the foresight and internal funding of GA-ASI. Its unique design and speed increases its survivability in higher threat environments and provides customers with an expanded quick-response armed reconnaissance capability. Gray Eagle Extended Range (GE-ER) is a next-generation advanced derivative of the battle-proven Gray Eagle Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). GE-ER delivers long-endurance UAS surveillance, communications relay, and weapons delivery missions.

Commercial Products and Services

GA is also into diagnostic reagents and enzymes, deicing technology, computer science, capacitors, detection & imaging products, gulftronic separator systems, hazardous waste destruction, precision manufacturing, motors, generators, and drives. GA is into maglev technologies, nuclear technologies, terminal automation products, microwave technologies, fusion technology products, radiation monitoring systems, and spectroscopy and electron microscopy.

General Atomics Maglev Technology. Image Source: http://www.ga.com

GA Other Products and Services

Other products consist of five product lines involving different aspects of energy. Terminal Automation Products (TAP) provides automated distribution, inventory control and transaction processing systems to bulk product storage facilities that handle petroleum, chemical and agricultural products. Radiation Monitoring Systems (RMS) designs, manufactures, and supports a full range of radiation monitoring, detecting, control, data collection, and display equipment, with equipment and systems at over half of the currently operating nuclear plants in the United States and at numerous sites in Europe and throughout the Far East.

General Atomics Energy Products manufactures Maxwell high voltage capacitors after acquiring the product line from Maxwell Technologies in 2000. The Gulftronic Separator System is a continuous operation, electrostatic, on-stream separation system currently in use by most major oil companies. Since their introduction in 1979, over 30 systems have been installed at petroleum refineries worldwide. TRIGA (Training, Research, Isotopes and General Atomics), with over 65 facilities in 22 countries, is a supplier of nuclear research reactors for university, industrial, government, and medical applications. Originally designed to meet requirements for operator training, educational programs including nuclear research, and fuel development, TRIGA’s design has allowed its usage to be expanded to meet the requirements of application in medical and agricultural research, isotope production, and neutron radiography. TRIGA International is with CERCA, a subsidiary of Areva.

General Atomics Systems Integration, LLC (GA-SI) – provider of military and commercial engineering services. GA-SI is active in aircraft systems integration technologies, reliability improvements, and controls system design. GA-SI provides engineering services for new-development and aging-system services to military and commercial customers. The company also provides Test and Evaluation assessment as well as field services. ConverDyn – provides uranium hexafluoride (UF6) conversion and related services to utilities operating nuclear power plants in North America, Europe, and Asia. The company coordinates and manages all aspects of the conversion process, including uranium deliveries, uranium sampling, materials storage, and product delivery. It isjJointly owned by Honeywell Inc.

GA into Mines and Metals. Uranium mining in Colorado. Image Source: minesandmetals.com

Cotter Corporation headquartered in Denver, Colorado, through its various mining and milling operations, has produced uranium, vanadium, molybdenum, silver, lead, zinc, copper, selenium, nickel, cobalt, tungsten and limestone. Originally incorporated in 1956, in New Mexico as a uranium production company, Cotter was purchased by and became a wholly owned subsidiary of Commonwealth Edison in 1975. GA acquired Cotter in early 2000. Heathgate Resources Pty. Ltd., formed in 1990, is the owner and operator of the Beverley Uranium Mine in northern South Australia. Beverley is Australia’s third uranium mine and Australia’s only operating In Situ Leach mine.

Nuclear Fuels Corporation – NFC was formed in 1991, by General Atomics (GA) to market uranium produced from GA mining assets as well as to develop additional uranium projects. NFC is a long-term contract supplier to both US and foreign utilities and actively participates in uranium trading. NFC is the marketing representative for other GA affiliates, Heathgate Resources and Cotter Corporation. The company also has an agreement to purchase all uranium recovered by Wismut GmbH from reclamation of the Königstein mine in eastern Germany.

GA’s Advanced Reactors. Image Source: ga.com

Rio Grande Resources Corporation – controls uranium operations and mineral resources acquired by GA from Chevron Resources in 1991. Included in this acquisition were mines in south Texas and New Mexico. In New Mexico, the Mt. Taylor project, a conventional underground mine that contains the largest uranium resource in the United States, is currently on standby.

Spezialtechnik Dresden GmbH partners with GA to market the Predator drone in Germany. On 30 September 2020, General Atomics bought the Dornier 228 production line in Oberpfaffenhofen, along the business aviation and helicopter MRO operations of RUAG, pending regulatory approval.

Educational outreach

Since 1992, the General Atomics Science Education Outreach Program, a volunteer effort of GA employees and San Diego science teachers, has worked with Science Coordinators for the San Diego Schools to bring the business and research side of science into the classroom. The goal is both to improve the quality of science education and to encourage more students to pursue science careers. In addition, the teachers’ interactions with the scientists and exposure to everyday uses of their disciplines help them to be better educators. In 1995, the program was expanded, and the General Atomics Sciences Education Foundation was established. The goal is to enhancing pre-college education in science, engineering, and new technologies.

MQ-9B SkyGuardian/SeaGuardian

GA-ASI has developed a variant of the Predator B Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) series that meets NATO standards (STANAG-4671), and in cooperation with the FAA, will subsequently meet airworthiness certification standards domestically and around the world. It leverages both the Predator B RPA and Certifiable Ground Control Station (CGCS) as points-of-departure systems and identifies and incorporates the changes needed to achieve a “Type-Certifiable” system. The Royal Air Force was the very first to acquire the SkyGuardian, referred to as PROTECTOR by the British acquisition program, as a replacement for its Reaper fleet.

MQ-9B SkyGuardian/SeaGuardian. Image Source: flightglobal.com

MQ-9B contains both hardware and software upgrades, such as improved structural fatigue and damage tolerance and more robust flight control software, as well as enhancements allowing operations in adverse weather including icing conditions. Additionally, the aircraft will be designed to survive bird and lightning strikes. A highly modular and is easily configured platform with a variety of payloads to meet mission requirements. The aircraft is capable of carrying multiple mission payloads and includes a state-of-the art Detect and Avoid (DAA) system including space, weight, and power provisions to enable the retrofitting of an airborne Due Regard Radar (DRR) for operation in non-cooperative airspace. The maritime variant of MQ-9B, SeaGuardian, can be configured with cross-domain capabilities for a vast range of maritime surveillance operations, including: Anti-Surface Warfare, Anti-Submarine Warfare, HA/DR – Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief, Search and Rescue, Law Enforcement (Drug Trafficking, Illegal Immigration, Piracy), Airborne Counter Mine Capability (Developmental).

MQ-9A “Reaper”

The turboprop-powered, multi-mission MQ-9A Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) was developed with GA-ASI funding and first flown in 2001. MQ-9A “Reaper” is a highly sophisticated development built on the experience gained with the company’s battle-proven Predator RPA and is a major evolutionary leap forward in overall performance and reliability. MQ-9A was designated “Reaper” by the U.S. and Royal Air Force, but has become the widely used name for any Predator B equipped with weapons.

It is meant for Persistent Multi-Mission ISR, to perform over-the-horizon long-endurance, medium-altitude Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Featuring unmatched operational flexibility, MQ-9A has an endurance of over 27 hours. It has a wing span of 69 ft (21 m), and length of 36 ft (11 m). Powered by Honeywell TPE331-10 Turboprop engine integrated with Digital Electronic Engine Control (DEEC), which significantly improves engine performance and fuel efficiency, particularly at low altitudes. It is engineered to meet and exceed manned aircraft reliability standards. Its max take-off weight is 12,500 lb (5670 kg), and payload Capacity of 4,800 lb (2177 kg) which can be across 9 hard-points (8 wing, 1 centreline). 800 lb of this payload is internal. The max altitude up to 50,000 ft AMSL, and max endurance is 40 hours. The max air speed is 240 Knots. It has control and data links in C-Band (line of sight) and over-the-horizon uses X-, Ku-, or Ka-band BLOS. There is a backup BLOS. The aircraft carries 500% more payload and has nine times the horsepower. It provides a long-endurance, persistent surveillance/strike capability for the war fighter.

General Atomics MQ-9A “Reaper” with weapons. Image Source: nation.time.com

An extremely reliable aircraft, MQ-9A is equipped with a fault-tolerant flight control system and triple redundant avionics system architecture. The aircraft is highly modular and is configured easily with a variety of payloads to meet mission requirements. MQ-9A is capable of carrying multiple mission payloads to include: Electro-optical/Infrared (EO/IR), Lynx Multi-mode Radar, multi-mode maritime surveillance radar, Electronic Support Measures (ESM), laser designators, and various weapons and payload packages.

MQ-9A continues to improve and evolve. The MQ-9A Extended Range (ER) was designed with field-retrofittable capabilities such as wing-borne fuel pods and a new reinforced landing gear that extends the aircraft’s endurance from 27 hours to 34 hours, while further increasing its operational flexibility. To date, the MQ-9A has been acquired by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the Royal Air Force, the Italian Air Force, the French Air Force and the Spanish Air Force.

Predator C Avenger

The UAV is meant to perform high-speed, long-endurance, more covert multi-mission Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and precision strike missions over land or sea. As with Predator B, Predator C Avenger was developed with internal funding of GA-ASI. Its unique design and speed increases its survivability in higher threat environments and provides customers with an expanded quick-response armed reconnaissance capability. The first flight of Predator C occurred in April 2009. The current production version has an increased wingspan of 76 feet with additional fuel capacity resulting in an endurance increase to over 20 hours. The Avenger ER (Extended Range) first flew in October 2016 and completed an expanded flight test program in 2017.

General Atomics Predator C Avenger. Image Source: You Tube

The high-speed, multi-mission Avenger ER is a long-endurance, medium-to-high-altitude RPA system that can perform wide-area surveillance, time-sensitive strike missions over land or sea, and a host of other challenging military or civilian missions. The aircraft has much higher operational and transit speeds than current Predator B-series aircraft, resulting in quick response and rapid repositioning for improved mission flexibility and survivability.

Avenger is a highly advanced, next-generation RPA. The jet-powered aircraft with max gross take-off weight of 18,200 lb (8255 kg) is equipped with a commercial Pratt & Whitney PW545B turbofan engine capable of producing over 5,000 pounds of thrust, resulting in a runway length requirement of under 5,000 feet. The engine is designed for greater fuel economy and features class-leading fuel consumption components. Avenger can operate at speeds up to 400 KTAS, at an altitude of over 50,000 feet, and 20+ hours of endurance. Payload Capacity is 6,500 lb (2948 kg) of which 3,500 lb (1588 kg) is internal. It carries the Hellfire missiles, GBU-12/49, GBU-31, GBU-32, GBU-38 JDAM, GBU-39, GBU-16/48 and EO/IR payloads. It has the Lynx Multi-mode radar, SIGINT/ESM system, and communications relay equipment.

General Atomics Avenger Extended Range UAS. Image Source: defenseworld.net

The Avenger ER employs the same materials and avionics as Predator B and is likewise controlled from the same fully-interoperable GA-ASI Ground Control Stations (GCS) used for operating Predator-series aircraft.  Avenger’s low operating cost combined with high-altitude persistence make it an ideal platform to augment existing Low Density High Demand (LDHD) aircraft with long range radar, Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), communication relay payloads or weapons. In a contested environment the Avenger platform can penetrate Weapon Engagement Zones (WEZ) of adversary Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (SAMs) without risking human life, or fly with long range sensors outside of the WEZ of even the longest range, strategic SAMs.

Gray Eagle Extended Range (GE-ER)

          Gray Eagle Extended Range (GE-ER) is a next-generation advanced derivative of the battle-proven Gray Eagle Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). It is meant to provide a long-endurance, aerial Reconnaissance, Surveillance, Target Acquisition (RSTA) capability for combat aviation brigades at division level and aerial exploitation battalions for echelons above division. GE-ER delivers long-endurance UAS surveillance, communications relay, and weapons delivery missions in support of the war-fighter. The aircraft delivers an advanced UAS capability for the Army, adding significantly increased endurance, considerably improved reliability/maintainability, and much greater payload and weapons capacity. First flown in July 2013, GE-ER builds upon the successes of its Gray Eagle predecessor, delivering upgraded capabilities by providing extended surveillance coverage, along with the ability to self-transit to distant locations.

General Atomics Gray Eagle Extended Range (GE-ER). Image Source: unmannedsystemstechnology.com

GE-ER is engineered with a Max Gross Take-off Weight (MGTOW) of 4,200 pounds, utilizing a high-performance HFE-180HP heavy-fuel diesel engine compared with the Gray Eagle’s GTOW of 3,600 pounds with a 160HP diesel engine. GE-ER has a wing span of 58 ft (17m), length of 28 ft (9m) and Max Take-off Weight of 4,200 lb (1905 kg). Payload Capacity is 400 lb internal (181 kg) and 500 lb centre-line (227 kg). It will carry 4 Hellfire missiles, and EO/IR and SAR/GMTI payloads. Max Altitude is 29,000 ft (8839.2m) and max endurance of 42 hours. Max air speed is 167 KTAS. The incorporation of GE-ER’s deep belly design and 500-pound centre-line hard point allows for 900 pounds of internal fuel load, with the capability of an external fuel pod that can accommodate an additional 450 pounds. Use of this extra fuel supports persistent Army Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition (RSTA) missions. GE-ER endurance has been demonstrated in Army operational configurations and flew nearly two days straight during testing at GA-ASI’s Flight Operations Facility in El Mirage, California. Improved airworthiness design, has the potential of incorporating lightning protection, damage tolerance, and Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) features.

GE-ER features an automatic take-off and landing system (ATLS) that allows the aircraft to be launched and recovered without any operator interaction. The ATLS is based upon GA-ASI’s Gray Eagle ATLS which has successfully conducted tens of thousands of take-offs and landings.

Gray Eagle Extended Range (Multi-Domain Operation) – GE-ER (MDO)

The next evolution in UAS capability is currently in development through the modernization of the Gray Eagle Extended Range. The GE-ER (MDO) leverages the open architecture and available SWAP of the GE-ER to meet the U.S. Army’s operating concept of Multi-Domain Operations. Modernization efforts focus on increased capability and survivability in a large scale combat operations environment. The modernization efforts will ensure that the GE-ER (MDO) can operate and thrive in a degraded navigation environment and provide high fidelity situational awareness through a suite of long range sensors. The GE-ER (MDO) is also capable of launching Air Launched Effects (ALE). It will serve as the “ALE Mothership” and enable joint forces to maintain situational awareness deep into the battlefield. The GE-ER (MDO) utilizes the open architecture design to operate through a scalable command and control (SC2) interface. The SC2 system enables Soldiers to operate the GE-ER (MDO) through a laptop or handheld device. The advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning are also streamlining the operation of the system. The GE-ER (MDO) leverages advancements in technology to reduce operator workload and increase overall effectiveness on the battlefield.

Gray Eagle Extended Range (Multi-Domain Operation) – GE-ER (MDO) Demonstration. Image Source: suasnews.com

U.S. To Equip MQ-9 Reaper Drones With Artificial Intelligence

The Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center has awarded a $93.3 million contract to GA-ASI, to equip the drone with new AI technology. The aim is for the Reaper to be able to carry out autonomous flight, decide where to direct its battery of sensors, and to recognize objects on the ground. The contract, announced at the end of last month, builds on a successful test earlier this year. An incremental step using evolving technology. What makes it significant is the drone that is being equipped, and what it will be able to do afterwards. The MQ-9 Reaper is the mainstay of the U.S. drone force, equipped with advanced sensors. Military drones are notoriously backward when it comes to on-board intelligence, even compared to their tiny cousins in the consumer world. You can buy a drone like the SkyDio 2 which can carry out a complete flight on its own, taking off and locking on to the owner to autonomously shoot video of them while they surf, ski or skateboard, then landing automatically afterwards. By contrast, military drones need a remote pilot to take off and land, and a payload operator to point the cameras and other sensors at the target, and of course to launching missiles).

Image Source: thedrive.com

Agile Condor Pod system on Reaper

GA-ASI has just conducted a flight test of MQ-9 Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) integrated with the Agile Condor Pod. Agile Condor is high performance embedded computing architecture for the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Agile Condor Pod system is a scalable, low cost, size, weight and power (low-CSWaP) hardware architecture. It is designed to enable high-performance embedded computing (HPEC) on board the RPA. Combined with machine learning algorithms, it offers the capability to detect, correlate, identify and track objects of interest. The MQ-9 uses GA-ASI’s built-in electro-optical / infrared (EO / IR) sensor and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to automatically identify objects. This is said to be a key step to increased automation, autonomous target detection and quick decision-making.    It is expected to enhance the combat capability of troops in controversial or rejected environments.

Agile Condor Pod system on Reaper. Image Source: thedrive.com

Agile Reaper Enterprise Solution – Export Push Program

In September, the USAF launched an ‘Agile Reaper Enterprise Solution’ contract with drone makers GA ASI. This is for the MQ-9A version of the Reaper, and allows partners in the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program to buy Reapers on a standardized price curve. According to USAF officials, the agreement will cut the time to fulfil export orders by more than a third. Clearly an export boom is anticipated. Drones are certainly getting popular. Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones with laser-guided missiles appear to have played an important role in Azerbaijan’s military success against Armenia in the last two months; the Reaper is a much larger and more capable platform. And while many customers have already acquired Chinese-made alternatives, not everyone is happy with them. Last year Jordan disposed of its fleet of Chinese CH-4B armed drones, stating that their performance was not satisfactory.

UAE Reaper Sale

Was a UAV based remote-controlled machine gun the perfect weapon for assassinating Iranian nuclear scientist? Amnesty International are campaigning to stop the sale of Reapers to the UAE. The organization claims that the sale could make U.S. responsible for further civilian deaths in Yemen and Libya, where the UAE has carried out strikes with armed drones. “These U.S. drones could be responsible for UAE attacks that violate international humanitarian law, and kill – as well as injure – thousands of Yemeni civilians already bearing the brunt of the one of the world’s most devastating humanitarian catastrophes,” stated Philippe Nassif, advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA, in a press release.

Reaper firing a AGM-114 Hellfire missile. Image Source: tribune.com.pk

An investigation by the UK’s BBC news media uncovered evidence that a Wing Loong II drone operated by the UAE killed 26 unarmed cadets at a military academy in Libya’s capital Tripoli in January 2020. The UAE claimed the cadets were killed by local shelling, but the evidence suggests they were hit by a Blue Arrow missile from a drone, flown from al-Khadim airbase. It is possible the UAE has another role for the Reapers in mind. The deal reportedly includes Anti-Submarine Warfare mission kits and the capability to drop sonobuoys for submarine detection. This would make the UAE the first nation to use drones in this role, taking advantage of their long endurance for extended maritime patrols. However, the UAE Reapers will also come with missile and bomb launch racks, and an arsenal of the latest AGM-114R Hellfire missiles and GBU-12 laser-guided bomb kits, so they will certainly be capable of lethal strikes. Exporting drones may make good business sense for the companies involved. Critics say it also fuels a spiralling escalation of unmanned warfare, with no end in sight. The drone wars – and the wars over drones – continue.

GBU-49 attached to MQ-9 Reaper UAV (credit: U.S. Air Force). Image Source: http://characterisationexplosiveweapons.org/

Selling Reaper Drones to UAE more potent than F-35s?

While the decision to sell F-35 fighter jets to the UAE has attracted considerable attention, some are more concerned about another element of the huge arms deal: the sale of 18 ‘weapons ready’ MQ-9B Reaper drones, a type famous for delivering Hellfire missile strikes on insurgent leaders. The U.S. Air Force has terminated its purchasing of Reapers, and Chinese and Turkish competitors are proving highly successful at selling armed drones on the export market. The argument goes that, without the shackles of the Missile Technology Control Regime, America will be able to compete, and that will be a tremendous boost for exports. It thus looks lucrative. While the USAF pays somewhere around $20 million for reach MQ-9B Reaper (or more, depending on how you count it), the UAE deal is reportedly worth up to $2.9 billion. This includes all the supporting equipment, spares, ground control stations, communications and other gear. As a package, 8 Reapers will work out around $150 million for each drone.

This sale reaffirms the advantages of Reaper drones, which are far less capable than the top-end F-35s that the UAE is also acquiring. Drones are a low-risk proposition, which can be easily deployed in distant conflicts with no danger or crew being captured or killed. And they are more deniable than manned aircraft, especially when several players operate similar drones in the same theatre of war. So while the F-35s may never see action, the Reapers could be sent to a war zone as soon as they are delivered.

Indian-American Chief Executive Dr. Vivek Lall with President Elect Joe Biden. Image Source: financialexpress.com

Indian-American Chief Executive

General Atomics Global Corporation appointed Indian-American defence industry veteran Vivek Lall as its new Chief Executive. This is Dr. Lall’s second stint with the company as he has worked with General Atomics from August 2014 to December 2017 before joining Lockheed Martin. Vivek Lall, a world renowned aerospace and defence leader who has held key positions with Boeing and Reliance. Under his leadership, from 2007 till April 2011, Boeing concluded the US-India defence deals for C17 strategic lift, P-8I Anti-submarine warfare aircraft and Harpoon Missiles. Earlier Vivek also had a tenure in defence company Raytheon, where he worked on the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS) Beechcraft T-6 Texan II. He also worked on various disciplines at the NASA Ames Research Center.

Vivek was appointed as Chairman of the Indo-US Strategic Dialogue by the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce. In August 2011. He has been a Distinguished Fellow at India’s think tank Observer Research Foundation, and also served as Chairman of the Defence Committee of The Association of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM). He has been also recognised as one of the world’s top scientists of the twentieth century by Cambridge. He is a qualified pilot who was also affiliated with the United Nations in New York to advise on Broadband and Cyber Security issues for challenges within the global community and provide services that will help address them.

GA ASI UAVs on Lease to India

Indian Navy just inducted two Sea Guardian (unarmed versions) drones on lease. More could inducted later. These two drones are flying with Indian Navy logo, and are under the full operational control of the service and it will have exclusive access to all the information that the drone will capture or relay. The lease is reportedly under the emergency procurement, perhaps related to the stand-off in Ladakh. Technically, the MQ-9 Guardian/Predator-B has been leased from General Atomics for a year for surveillance in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The data acquired by the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) will be the sole property of India. The company team in India will only maintain the two aircraft. Inducted on 21 November are at Indian Navy air base at INS Rajali. It is the first defence system that has been taken on lease under the new Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020 introduced this year, reports Snehesh Alex Philip of the Print. The only other defence equipment on lease is the Chakra nuclear submarine from Russia. The long endurance of the drones would supplement the work done by the P8-I maritime patrol aircraft.

Sea Guardian (unarmed versions) drones on lease to Indian Navy. Image Source: Reuters via business-standard.com

Purchase of GA-ASI UAVs by India

All the three armed forces of India who currently operate Israeli Heron, Searcher and Harpy/Harop UAVs, have been looking at American UAVs. While Navy was keen on Sea Guardians, Indian Air Force wants the armed  Predator B. India needs a dual use UAV for both surveillance and attack. American drones are expensive considering the meagre Capital budget of India. Earlier, there was an offer of 22 Sea Guardians at around $2 billion. The same had been initially approved Indian MoD. The drones were intended for ISR over the Indian Ocean. The number for Sea Guardians was eventually brought down to just 12. As per last reports, 30 Predator class drones may be bought by India (10 each for the three services). India may also take two more UAVs on lease for the Indian army and IAF to get embedded in the ecosystem. India is thus getting closer to the US $3 Billion deal for 30 MQ-9 UAVs.

GA-ASI India Office

Eyeing future business with India’s military, GA ASI had opened an office in New Delhi and added Pratesh Gandhi, a former Indian naval aviator, to serve as director of India strategic development.

Bright Future

GA ASI has a niche position in global unmanned aircraft market. The company is into many other systems. For nuclear power, space and directed energy weapons with specialisation in Lasers. All these are strategic areas. India is an expanding regional power. GA ASI sees a great potential for market and partnership. Unmanned is where the future is. India also is a significant space power and there is scope for joint work.

Header Image Source: armadainternational.com

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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