How Indian MQ-9B SkyGuardian Acquisition Plan Changes Drone Equation in South Asia

Comparing the MQ-9B with China's Wing Loong and Pakistan's Bayraktar TB2 drones
  • Defensemirror.com bureau
  • Friday, February 9, 2024 @ 09:36 AM
  • 1379
How Indian MQ-9B SkyGuardian Acquisition Plan Changes Drone Equation in South Asia

MQ-9B SkyGuardian

India has recently gained U.S. approval for the acquisition of 31 MQ-9B SkyGuardian Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs), with a whopping price tag of $3.99 billion. Does this acquisition enable India to be one up against its Asian rivals such as China and Pakistan which are armed with similar attack/reconnaissance UCAVs made in China and Turkey?

The MQ-9B SkyGuardian, developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, comes with a hefty price of approximately $129 million per unit, putting it in direct competition with fully armed fighter jets like the F-16 and the Rafale.

However, it's not just the cost; it's the comprehensive capabilities that distinguish the MQ-9B being sold to India from different packages of the same drone sold to other countries. But will this be sufficient to help it to stay ahead in the armed drone race against its adversaries?

The approved package from the United States includes 35 L3 Rio Grande Communications/Intelligence Sensor Suites, 170 AGM-114R Hellfire Missiles, and 310 GBU-39B/B Laser Miniature Bombs. The sensor suite is equipped with Selex SeaSpray AESA Radars, HISAR-300 radars, MX-20 electro-optical systems, and an array of additional sensors, making the MQ-9B one of the most advanced UCAVs exported by the United States.

As India embraces the MQ-9B SkyGuardian, a comparative analysis of the regional landscape reveals China's prowess in drone technology with competitors such as the Caihong-5 (CH-5) Rainbow and Wing Loong II (Chengdu GJ-2). Both are medium- to high- altitude long-range attack/reconnaissance drones.

Pakistan drone arsenal consisting of Wing Loong II was expanded in 2023 to include the Turkey-made Bayraktar TB2 and Akinci combat drones.

According to General Atomics, “The MQ-9B's comprehensive capabilities and adaptability position it as a versatile asset for a variety of missions. The coming years will witness the unfolding impact of these acquisitions on regional security, intelligence gathering, and the evolving landscape of modern warfare.”

MQ-9 Reaper:

The General Atomics’ MQ-9 under U.S. control is said to have been involved in several targeted assassinations including:

  • January 2, 2020: Assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq.

The MQ-9 Reaper or "Predator B" was used to assassinate Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani.

  • February 7, 2024: U.S. Drone Strike on Kata'ib Hezbollah Leader

In response to intensified Iran-backed militia attacks, a U.S. drone strike (reports identified it as a MQ-9B Reaper) killed a senior leader of Kata'ib Hezbollah, using Hellfire missiles.

The only American combat drones capable of deploying Hellfire missiles include the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.

The extensive use of the MQ-9 for surveillance in the borders of Russia and Ukraine besides Syria has been revealed in several near-miss incidents involving Russian military aircraft.

How Indian MQ-9B SkyGuardian Acquisition Plan Changes Drone Equation in South Asia
Chinese UAV Wing Loong II
  • March 14, 2023: Collision Over the Black Sea

One of two intercepting Russian Su-27 fighters collided with an MQ-9 Reaper flying in international airspace over the Black Sea.

  • July 23, 2023: Intercepting Russian Fighter Damages MQ-9 in Syria

A Russian fighter intercepted a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 over Syria and deployed flares, damaging the propeller. The drone returned to base safely.

While the MQ-9, Bayraktar and Wing Loong II may pack quite a punch, their relatively slow speed high visibility on radar renders them vulnerable to enemy fire.

  • November 8, 2023: Houthi Rebels Shoot Down MQ-9 over the Red Sea

Houthi rebels in Yemen shot down a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 over the Red Sea amid attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria.

  • January 18, 2024: Islamic Resistance of Iraq Shoots Down MQ-9

The Islamic Resistance of Iraq shot down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone after it took off from Kuwait near Muqdadiyah, Diyala Governorate.

Bayraktar TB2: Used in ongoing Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and Russia-Ukraine conflicts.

  • In August 2018, Turkey used Bayraktar TB2 to kill PKK leader ?smail Özden in Iraq.
  • Libya’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) uses Bayraktar TB2s against General Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA).
  • Azerbaijan uses Bayraktar TB2s to destroy Armenian targets.
  • Ukrainian TB2 Drones (February 2022 - Present):

Ukrainian TB2 drones have  destroyed Russian command posts, military vehicles, tanks, IFVs, trucks, missile systems, artillery, rocket launchers, helicopters, and fuel trains.

Ukrainian sources claim TB2s were involved in sinking the Russian cruiser Moskva using R-360 Neptune missiles.

Wing Loong:

  • March 2017: Egyptian Air Force Wing Loong UCAVs in North Sinai:

The Egyptian Air Force launched airstrikes in North Sinai using Wing Loong UCAVs against militants.

  • April 2018: Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen:

Wing Loong UCAVs used by the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm successfully killed senior Houthi leader Saleh Ali al-Sammad in Yemen.

  • Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. Drone Use in Yemen:

Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. both have attacked Houthi targets in Yemen using CH-4 and Wing Loong drones.

  • January 2024: Pakistan targets alleged terrorist hideouts in Iran

Islamabad is believed to have used Wing Loong drones along with JF-17 fighters during January 2024 attack on ‘terrorist’ targets in Iran's Sistan-o-Baluchistan province, soon after Tehran targeted bases of Jaish al-Adl in Pakistan's Balochistan province.

How Indian MQ-9B SkyGuardian Acquisition Plan Changes Drone Equation in South Asia
Pakistani Bayraktar TB2 drone @via X

Comparison of MQ-9B SkyGuardian, Ch-5 Rainbow, Wing Loong II, Bayraktar TB2 and Akinci:

Specification

MQ-9B SkyGuardian

Caihong-5 (CH-5) Rainbow

Wing Loong II

Bayraktar TB2

Akinci

Speed

300 knots

200 knots

280 knots

135 knots

High-subsonic

Range

7,408 km

6,000 km

3,000 km

278 km

4,500 km

Weapons Carried

Hellfire missiles, precision-guided bombs like Paveway IV

AR-1 Missile, AKD-10 Anti-Tank Missile, BRMI-90  Guided Rocket, FT-7/130  Glide Bomb, FT-9/50 50kg Bomb, GB-7/50 50kg  GB-4/100 PGM

 Lan Jian 7 Missiles, TG100 Laser/INS/GPS-Guided Bombs, AR-1/HJ-10 Anti-Tank Missile

MAM missiles,  laser-guided bombs, L-UMTAS  Anti-tank Missile, Roketsan 70 mm Missile, BOZOK Laser Guided Rockets,  TOGAN, Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System

MAM missiles UMTAS, CIRIT, Gökdo?an, Bozdo?an Bozok, SOM-A

AESA Radar

Leonardo Seaspray 7500E V2 radar

Not specified

Not specified

Multi Mode AESA Radar

Indigenous AESA Radar (MURAT)

Length

12.19 m

11 m

11 m

6.5 m

Not specified

Wingspan

24.08 m

21 m

20.5 m

12 m

20 m

Max Takeoff Weight

5,670 kg

3,300 kg

4,200 kg

650 kg

4,500 kg

Payload

1,701 kg

900 kg

480 kg

150 kg

900 kg external + 450 kg internal

Engine

Honeywell TPE331-10GD turboprop

Not specified

Not specified

Rotax engine

TEI PD220

Endurance

Up to 40 hours

Up to 60 hours

32 hours

Up to 27 hours

24 hours

Service Ceiling

12,192 m

Not specified

9,144 m

6,705 m

Not specified

Operational Altitude

7,620 m

Not specified

5,486 m

6,096 m

40,000 feet

Functions

Surveillance, Reconnaissance, Strike

Surveillance, Reconnaissance

Reconnaissance, Strike

Supports drone swarm tactics for reconnaissance, surveillance, saturation strike

Surveillance, Reconnaissance, Strike, Combat missions

 

 

 

Which long endurance attack/reconnaissance drone is the best?

  • Speed: MQ-9B has the highest speed at 300 knots, followed by Wing Loong (280 knots), Bayraktar TB2 (135 knots), and Caihong-5 (200 knots).
  • Range: MQ-9B has the longest range at 7,408 km, followed by Caihong-5 (6,000 km), Wing Loong II (3,000 km), Bayraktar TB2 (278 km).
  • Weapons Carried: MQ-9B carries Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs, offering a diverse range of munitions. Other drones also carry a variety of missiles and guided rockets.
  • AESA Radar: MQ-9B and Bayraktar TB2 have specified AESA radar systems, providing advanced surveillance capabilities.
  • Payload: MQ-9B has the highest payload at 1,701 kg, followed by Wing Loong II (480 kg), Bayraktar TB2 (150 kg), and Caihong-5 (900 kg).

The choice of superiority depends on specific mission requirements, budget considerations, and regional geopolitical factors. The MQ-9B SkyGuardian excels in advanced capabilities but comes with a higher cost. The Wing Loong offers long endurance and diverse payload options, while the Bayraktar TB2 provides a cost-effective solution with proven effectiveness in various conflicts. Each drone has its strengths, and the optimal choice depends on the strategic goals and operational needs of the acquiring country.

How Indian MQ-9B SkyGuardian Acquisition Plan Changes Drone Equation in South Asia
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