GA-ASI to deliver two MQ-9As to 3rd MRL in Hawaii next summer

By Audrey Decker  / May 17, 2022

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems will deliver two MQ-9A unmanned aircraft to the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment next summer, a company official said.

The order for the first eight aircraft in the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Unmanned Expeditionary program will go through in the next month or two, according to Doug Hardison, GA-ASI sector vice president for Navy and Marine Corps strategic development.

The company will deliver two MQ-9As no later than September 2023 to meet Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger’s requirement for early operational capability in Hawaii, Hardison told Inside Defense during an interview last week at the Modern Day Marine 2022 conference.

“I would also say that the Marine Corps’ primary criteria are schedule and then cost and then performance. They had to be in Hawaii for early operational capability no later than September 2023,” Hardison said. “That was really the driving factor.”

The Marine Corps would procure five MQ-9As in the FY-23 budget request and envisions the MQ-9A as a “standoff capability” that provides a network gateway to connect small, distributed groups of Marines in contested environments.

Before the MQ-9A program, the Marine Corps didn’t have much unmanned aerial vehicle expertise, Hardison said.

“They're going to be successful because Marines don't fail at anything, but they would not have been successful or they had a lot more challenges if they hadn't partnered up with the U.S. Air Force [for] at least this initial effort,” Hardison said. “They've got a big program office and there's a hot production line and they have the training and they're leveraging all the support of the U.S. Air Force that they can.”

The Marine Corps is adding new pods and new capabilities to the aircraft -- such as a network pod called SkyTower, according to Hardison.

The initial SkyTower 1 pod is a rudimentary Link-16 and Tactical Targeting Networking Technology capability that will be delivered to the Marine Corps in late 2023, Hardison said. There’s also a contract for SkyTower 2 which GA-ASI is competing for, he added.

“They're adding some [electronic warfare] capabilities as well and other classified capabilities beyond that to do their primary missions in the Western Pacific, which are primarily maritime surface search, electronic warfare, airborne early warning and then also network -- basically think comms data relay,” Hardison said.

The Marine Corps will acquire the Scalable Open Architecture Reconnaissance pod, which is an EW capability, Hardison added.

Last week at Modern Day Marine, Berger said the service is going to expand its MQ-9 capability.

“We're going to move from three squadrons right now to perhaps double that. The reason why is . . . the need for organic [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], collection assets, all the way up, especially through the [Marine Expeditionary Force] level, is more and more and more critical,” Berger said.

The Marine Corps will use MQ-9 aircraft to have “persistent, organic ISR” down from the MEF to the platoon and squadron level, according to the general.

The service has to understand a massive battlespace in the Pacific, Hardison said.

“How do you extend the network and the battlespace awareness of this Marine Littoral Regiment beyond its own organic sensors to ranges that are measured in thousands of miles, not hundreds of miles?” Hardison said. “And that's a big deal because when you're operating in the Western Pacific, between the Philippines and Guam is 1,300 nautical miles, between the Philippines and mainland China is another 1,000. We're talking about distances that are like the entire United States.”

GA-ASI is looking at UAVs that could launch smaller UAVs -- something between a weapon and UAV that can complete an EW or kinetic function, Hardison said.

“That's a very inexpensive way as opposed to sending an airplane all the way there to do the same mission. I can use my big UAV that doesn't have the best radar cross-section, but I don't have to be right up close to the threat,” Hardison said. “I can stand off, sense, send things into that area and if I lose it, who cares.”

The services need to build inexpensively because if not, “we will run out of money” before capability is delivered, Hardison said.

“Which side of the cost curve do we want to be on in the future?” Hardison said.

On May 10, GA-ASI announced it will begin developing a short-takeoff-and-landing-capable MQ-9B.

“It's a concept that we have derived based upon a lot of analysis of what we believe the warfighters’ needs will be,” Hardison said.

“The Marine Corps, with Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations and the need to move from base to base because of the ability of the threat to find them, really can't afford to be in these big giant bases. As we looked at that, we kind of came to the conclusion we need to do something to minimize that base signature and base signatures are more a function of the size of long runways [more] than anything else -- so we can shrink that runway,” Hardison said.

If the company can minimize the base and use any 1,000 feet to land, the number of potential places to land greatly increases, he added.

“If you watch Ukraine, in the first hour and a half the Russians took out every major airfield -- everything that was over 6,000 feet,” Hardison said.

The MQ-9A needs 6,000 feet to land, MQ-9B needs 3,500 feet and the STOL package takes the MQ-9B down to 1,000 feet, Hardison said.

While the service did not direct GA-ASI to create the STOL variant, Hardison said the company has been in continual discussion with the Marine Corps.

“We have worked together closely with them on wargaming and back and forth trying to understand how we will make this platform tactically relevant in the Western Pacific. As we've had those discussions, there is this kind of continuous acknowledgment of we've got to be able to operate out of more places, we've got to be able to operate all-weather,” Hardison said.

“I think from our position, based upon our understanding of what the need is, some of this is predicated upon cost and schedule as much as performance, but we think the MQ-9 Bravo is probably the right platform, at least for the next 10 years for them to do the kinds of missions in the competition layer that makes sense,” Hardison said.

On the Navy side, Hardison said the company has been working with the service for the last year and a half on an unmanned Marine Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft, something that could augment or supplement the P-8 aircraft.

“The problem the Navy has is China [has] a lot of capacity for submarines and they're pushing subs out left and right and Russians who, although having lots of challenges in Ukraine, have a very good submarine capability,” Hardison said. “We kind of recognized that back five years ago [and] we started building up maritime capabilities and we've been partnered with the Navy to have some research and development agreements to develop those capabilities.”

GA-ASI demonstrated these capabilities during Integrated Battle Problem 21 and successfully handed off live submarine tracks to a P-8, Hardison said.

The company will take the MQ-9B out to Hawaii and participate in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise 2022 and will fully integrate with the fleet, he said.

The Navy is paying GA-ASI to fly the airplane during RIMPAC and the company will likely take the same airplane to Northern Edge 2023 in the Gulf of Alaska, Hardison added.