GA’s machines made their combat debut for the conflict in Afghanistan where they conducted both surveillance-reconnaissance missions as well as direct action operations against the Taliban. American drone strikes outside of Afghanistan drew international notoriety when the CIA targeted Taliban militants in Pakistan’s mountainous border region with Afghanistan. Public backlash aside, the drones proved their worth and their numbers have steadily grown.
Since the Reaper and Predator’s War on Terror heyday, General Atomics expanded their drone’s capabilities, widening the scope of missions GA’s aircraft can fulfill. Advancements include substituting jet engines for the platform’s original pusher turboprop, allowing for vastly superior range, speed, and payload capacity.
The company’s Predator C Avenger, still under development, also features a number of features intended to reduce the platform’s radar cross-section, including stealthily contoured wings and fuselage, as well as internally stored weapons and an S-shaped air intake.
One of GA’s newest missions? Maritime security.
From the Sky to the Sea
The Reaper and Predator family of drones excelled in non-contested Afghani and Pakistani airspace. But, as the United States retools for a potential conflict against a peer or near-peer rival, General Atomics drone’s future utility has been called into question. In a highly contested aerial environment—say, in a European land war against Russia, or in a maritime conflict with China—relatively slow-moving, non-stealthy drones could be easy pickings for even unsophisticated anti-aircraft systems.
But they could pull duty as submarine detectors, and maybe even submarine hunters.
In tandem with the Navy’s Naval Air Systems Command, General Atomics is exploring the how far their MQ-9B SeaGuardian can go, in terms of both range and performance as a dedicated sub hunter platform. GA claims that the SeaGuardian requires “90% less fuel than similarly configured manned ISR aircraft,” offering a significant logistical advantage.
Currently, the United States Navy relies on platforms like the P-8A Poseidon to conduct anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare. But, operating the Poseidon is not cheap. On top of financial costs, losing a Poseidon during a conflict would present a high human cost as well, as the airplane has five operator stations plus two pilots. Conversely, the unmanned SeaGuardian could free up manpower needed elsewhere—GA claims that SeaGuardians require 50% less operating personnel than current anti-submarine warfare platforms. Poseidon airplanes could then in theory serve as command-and-control centers, posing less risk to the crew.
To that end, General Atomics arms SeaGuardians with sonobuoy pods, essentially containerized sonar listening devices that can be dropped from the air and listen for enemy submarine traffic. SeaGuardians could also be equipped with small torpedoes, like Northrop Grumman’s Very Lightweight Torpedo, allowing for the addition of an offensive capability.
Still, one of the disadvantages inherent to the unmanned submarine hunter idea is the SeaGuardian’s more limited payload capacity for both sonobuoys and torpedoes, meaning their coverage area would be more limited than a Poseidon. Still, the unmanned anti-submarine warfare concept is solid, and could change how the U.S. Navy conducts anti-submarine and anti-surface operations.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.