Two General Atomics “Predator B” drones, also called the MQ-9 Reaper Sea Guardian, has been leased by the Indian Navy, in November 2020, from the USA for extended surveillance in the Indian Ocean. These drones are operating from INS Rajali near Arkonnam on the east coast. They are under the operational control of Indian Navy personnel and all data acquired is for Indian retention. The technical maintenance support for these is being provided by the company technicians. The drones with 30 hours of endurance are already flying operational missions. In view of the stand-off with China in Ladakh, it is possible to use them in the Himalayas also.
Meanwhile, it is understood that 30 more drones are likely to be cleared for procurement, 10 each for the three services. These are a high priority asset for the services and will be a significant addition to India’s Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) capability. The actual specifications and terms are being evolved. The grapevine is that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is set to accord Acceptance of Necessity (AON) approval for these 30 at the next meeting of its Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), likely in January 2021. This would have to be followed by the Letter of Request (LoR) to the US Navy and Department of Defense to formally initiate the process, and the US would then respond with a Letter of Acceptance (LOA). The in-principle agreement reportedly already exists. It is important to understand the technical and operational capabilities of the drone.
MQ-9 Reaper in USAF
The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (Predator B) was developed as a remotely controlled or autonomous flight operations platform originally for the United States Air Force (USAF). The MQ-9 is the first hunter-killer UAV designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance. USAF started getting the initial Reapers in 2001. In 2006, the then–Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force General T. Michael Moseley said: “We’ve moved from using UAVs primarily in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance roles before Operation Iraqi Freedom, to a true hunter-killer role with the Reaper.”
In 2008, USAF formed the first MQ-9A Reapers unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) unit. The USAF then sought the Predator B to provide an improved “deadly persistence” capability, flying over a combat area night-and-day waiting for a target to present itself, complementing piloted attack aircraft, typically used to drop larger quantities of ordnance on a target, while a cheaper RPV can operate almost continuously using ground controllers working in shifts, but carrying less ordnance. By March 2011, the U.S. Air Force was training more pilots for UCAVs than other platforms. The USAF operated 195 MQ-9 Reapers as of the end of 2016. 16 more were approved by US Congress in December 2020 for the next three years. Plans are to keep the MQ-9 in service into the 2030s.
MQ-9 Specifications and General Characteristics
The Predator is 36 ft 1 in (11 m) long, has a wingspan of 65 ft 7 in (20 m), and a height of 12 ft 6 in (3.81 m). Empty weight is 4,901 lb (2,223 kg) and max take-off weight is 10,494 lb (4,760 kg). The aircraft is powered by one Honeywell TPE331-10 turboprop, with 950 horsepower (710 kW) turboprop with Digital Electronic Engine Control. The greater power allows the Reaper to carry 15 times more ordnance payload and cruise at about three times the speed of the predecessor MQ-1. It has a maximum speed of about 480 km/h and a cruising speed of 280–310 km/h. The maximum speed is 482 km/h, and the cruise speed is 313 km/h. The external fuel tanks with fuel weigh 450 kg and increase endurance to a max of 42 hours. It has a range of 1,900 km, and an endurance of 14 hours when fully loaded. The service ceiling is 50,000 ft (15,420 m). There are 7 hardpoints that carry up to a maximum payload of 1,700 kg. 680 kg on the two inboard weapons stations, 340 kg on the two middle stations, and 91 kg on the outboard stations. Up to 4 AGM-114 Hellfire air to ground, missiles can be carried along with two 500 lb (230 kg) GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs. The drone can also carry the AIM-9 Sidewinder, and the GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). It could later also carry the AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missile. In September 2020, a Reaper was flown carrying two Hellfire missiles on each of the stations previously reserved for 500 lb bombs or fuel tanks. A software upgrade doubled the aircraft’s capacity to eight missiles.
MQ-9 Reaper Operations
MQ-9 Reaper crew include Pilots, Sensor Operators and Mission Intelligence Coordinators, are normally stationed at far locations in the Ground Control Station (GCS), and can hunt for targets and observe terrain using multiple sensors, including a thermographic camera, and release weapons. It is claimed that the onboard camera is able to read a license plate from nearly 3 km away. The operator’s command takes a little over a second to reach the drone via a satellite link.
Introducing an auto-land capability would reduce the Reaper’s manpower requirements to staff launch and recovery teams. The ground control stations have user-friendly video game-like controllers and touchscreen maps to access data without overwhelming operators. The UAV can be transported in a C-17 Globemaster III, and on landing be ready for operations in eight hours.
Unmanned Suppression of Enemy Air Defences
The ADM-160 MALD and MALD-J have been integrated onto the Reaper for an unmanned suppression of enemy air defences capability. MQ-9 equipped with a jamming pod and digital receiver/exciter has successfully demonstrated mission coordination with over 20 participating aircraft. UAV’s EO/IR sensor can achieve “launch-on-remote” capabilities with missile interceptors. A radar warning receiver (RWR) can indicate when it’s being targeted.
Its Raytheon AN/AAS-52 multi-spectral targeting sensor suite includes a colour/monochrome daylight TV, infrared, and image-intensified TV with laser rangefinder/laser designator to designate targets for laser-guided munitions. The aircraft is also equipped with the Lynx Multi-mode Radar that contains synthetic aperture radar (SAR) that can operate in both spotlight and strip modes, and ground moving target indication (GMTI) with Dismount Moving Target Indicator (DMTI) and Maritime Wide-Area Search (MWAS) capabilities. ARGUS-IS is a wide-area surveillance sensor system that has a coverage area of up to 100 Sq. km. The system has 368 cameras capable of capturing five million pixels each to create an image of about 1.8 billion pixels. The video is collected at 12 frames per second, producing several terabytes of data per minute. On 25 February 2016, General Atomics announced a successful test flight of the new Predator-B/ER version. This new version has had the wingspan extended to 79 feet, increasing its endurance to 40 hours.
On 28 October 2007, an MQ-9 had achieved its first “kill”, successfully firing a Hellfire missile against Afghanistan insurgents in the mountainous region. It took the USAF’s MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs 16 years to reach one million flight hours. The next million to reach 2 million flight hours, took just two and a half years more. On 13 November 2015, the Pentagon reported that an MQ-9 had killed ISIL member Mohammed Emwazi, popularly known as “Jihadi John”. Most drone strikes in Pakistan (during the 2000s War on Terror) were attributed to either the MQ-1 or MQ-9. An MQ-9 armed with an air-to-air missile successfully shot down a smaller manoeuvring target drone in November 2017. On 3 January 2020, a US MQ-9 missile strike at Baghdad International Airport killed Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds Force.
Other Predator Operators
Among the many foreign users of Predator are Australia, the Dominican Republic (under U.S. funding), France, Italy, Morocco, Netherlands, Spain, and United Kingdom. In the case of Belgium, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates, the deals are at the final stage of processing.
In June 2017, the US State Department approved the sale of 22 drones to India, costing around $2-3 billion. As of February 2020, a deal to purchase 30 drones with 10 drones for each of the three Indian armed services, was expected to sign by the end of the fiscal year. In November 2020, the Indian Navy began operating two leased MQ-9B SeaGuardians. The lease agreement is valid for one year. The IAF and Indian Army are likely to get the SkyGuardian, also called the Certifiable Predator B. The Indian Navy will require the SeaGuardian which is essentially the same with Multimode 360 Maritime Surface Search Radar and Automatic identification system (AIS). The MQ-9B will have some India specific systems. IAF and the Indian Army may also initially get two drones each for familiarisation and becoming part of the eco-system.
The Predator class of high-tech systems are usually sold only to allies and cleared at the level of the U.S. President. The U.S. had already declared India a Major Defence Partner (MDP) in 2016, and India has, over the past few years, signed all the four foundational agreements – GSOMIA, LSA, CISMOA, and BECA – that were required procedurally under the US laws for sharing of classified military technology. Military-grade, precision GPS location designator for instance, which can guide a missile with pinpoint accuracy, is one. To utilise the Predator, this is a primary requirement.
The Indian Navy will be a formidable naval air power in the region when both the P-8I and MQ-9B operate together, sharing intelligence and surveillance data, and also conduct missile attacks to destroy hostile ships and submarines. The pace of signing and supplying the Predators, and any other advanced system, would be as fast as India wants. The ball is in the Indian court.
This article was first written by the author for India Strategic in February 2021 Issue
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