The U.S. State Department has given the green light for NATO ally Belgium to buy MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones from General Atomics, a deal that could be worth $600 million approximately.
According to a news release by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) the deal would include four MQ-9B drones, two ground stations, five AN/DAS-4 multispectral targeting systems, 15 embedded GPS/inertial navigation systems, five AN/APY-8 Lynx synthetic aperture radars, and five detect-and-avoid systems. It also includes personnel training and U.S. government and contractor engineering and other support spares for testing and training equipment necessary to support a five-year period of operations.
Belgium announced its plan to buy the SkyGuardian last year, around the same time it declared its intent to buy Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The SkyGuardian, a variant of General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper, was developed in compliance with European flight regulations for international customers interested in medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) remotely-piloted aircraft. The SkyGuardian has an endurance time of 40 hours and be capable of surviving both bird and lightning strikes as per the company.
Describing them as “reconnaissance” assets while suggesting they won’t carry weapons Belgian defense minister Steven Vandeput said MALE drones “play an increasingly important role in operations, but [at a] European level there is a shortage of this type of aircraft.”
According to the State Department the proposed sale will “enhance the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) of the Belgian military in support of national, NATO, United Nation-mandated, and other coalition operations,” while noting that “The current fleet of Belgian Air Component aircraft has proven insufficient to support sustained and persistent ISR operations.”
DSCA said in a press release, “Belgium intends to use these defense articles and services to provide for the defense of its deployed troops, regional security, domestic security, and interoperability with the U.S./NATO partners.”
While the SkyGuardian variant was developed keeping in mind NATO standards, it can also be equipped with a Detect and Avoid 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 MQ-9 is used by the U.S. Air Force and Department of Homeland Security, NASA, and the air forces of France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. In addition to Belgium and the Netherlands, Australia and India have plans to acquire variants of the drone.
The DSCA release stated, “The proposed sale will enable the Belgian Air Component to conduct persistent and wide area ISR, including target acquisition, target designation, providing precision coordinates for Global Positioning System (GPS)-aided munitions, battle damage assessment, signal intelligence, communication, and data relays.”
The DSCA added that Belgium’s aim is to use the SkyGuardian drones for domestic security and to increase interoperability with NATO allies.