New maritime patrols from Hachinohe show the endurance, flexibility and value of medium-altitude, long-endurance, remotely piloted aircraft in the Western Pacific.
Serious security challenges call for serious responses. This is true all over the world, but seldom more urgently than in the Western Pacific.
The good news is that responsible governments there are leading the way with new approaches and systems to preserve their edge in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. As they redefine these practices, they show what’s possible for other nations in the neighbourhood or farther afield.
New Zealand faces a number of challenges in securing its vast exclusive economic zone and broader area of interest, whilst achieving a challenging array of defence roles. Recent initiatives undertaken by Japan could prove highly relevant as the New Zealand government assesses its options.
Japan has begun regular long distance/long endurance patrols with the new MQ-9B SeaGuardian, a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.
The Japan Coast Guard operates the aircraft from Japan Maritime Self Defense Force Air Station Hachinohe and patrols broad sections of the Sea of Japan. This includes the rich fishing grounds of the Yamato Bank and elsewhere, including over the Pacific waters to the east of the islands. Japan Coast Guard officials share their insights about these missions with officials of the Self Defense Force.
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These operations unlock a huge trove of insights about what’s taking place around the home and distant islands, applicable for any number of important uses. Tokyo can monitor and deter illegal fishing by foreign vessels. It can detect smuggling. It can preserve high-quality awareness about what’s taking place in areas of interest, and it can respond quickly if a vessel is in distress.
A growing number of other nations also are operating the SeaGuardian or its sibling, the MQ- 9B SkyGuardian, to gain access to these kinds of insights and mission options.
What sets these systems apart? They can do things no other aircraft can. For example, they can fly cost effectively for 24 hours or more in a single mission, depending on their configuration, much longer than any human-crewed aircraft could. That means coast guard officials or other users have the option to sweep large sections of ocean over a patrol and, if they spot something – like a vessel in distress – to stay with it and observe virtually nonstop. Working in teams with multiple aircraft relieving each other, SeaGuardian means never having to take eyes off a subject of interest. And the aircraft has been proven on operations in some of the most challenging weather conditions that might be expected.
Because of its linage tracing back through the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9A Reaper aircraft, the MQ- 9B is equally effective for overland missions ranging from forestry and key infrastructure monitoring through to search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and communications relay roles.
The aircraft are flown via satellite from a ground station – in Japan’s case, also from Hachinohe. That means no difficult remote or overseas deployments for the human crew to work from a forward operating base.
It also means that the human pilots can work in regular shifts, with fresh crews taking over in ways that can’t work with conventional surveillance aircraft.
An electro-optical infrared sensor provides full-motion video to operators and any other users who need it. A synthetic aperture radar lets the aircraft see through clouds, haze or smoke. The SeaGuardian aircraft can operate alone or in teams, and always in concert with other units, including human-crewed aircraft and ships.
One valuable example is the virtuous relationship between MQ- 9B and human-occupied maritime patrol aircraft such as the P-8 Poseidon, the P-3 Orion or others. The MQ-9B is much cheaper to operate than those aircraft, which means that navies can save the cost and wear they might have used flying the larger, older-model systems – then, when the time comes, expand the sensing, endurance and versatility of the human-crewed aircraft. An MQ-9B might spend several patrols autonomously searching for a hostile submarine, then enable a human-crewed anti-submarine aircraft to head directly for it.
Another example of powerful teaming is the pairing of MQ- 9B with satellites. Space sensing improves all the time and it’s an irreplaceable part of the defence and security world – but it’s also expensive and, in many cases, intermittent. Space surveillance doesn’t provide the persistence that MQ-9B does over, for example, maritime targets, and it can’t image them with the same flexibility and fidelity.
MQ-9B also can carry a number of mission-expanding payloads. The Japan Coast Guard, for example, flies it with a maritime search radar, which lets the aircraft see farther — and in more detail — than it could with only its onboard sensors.
A large and growing array of other payloads offers huge flexibility for other applications. These aircraft can serve as communications nodes, perform specialised sensing, increase their intelligence-gathering and many other capabilities.
This includes greater military roles, from delivering precise ordnance to supporting the hunt for submarines to serving as a precision targeting platform for land or maritime forces. Modern militaries are improving their ability to reach targets with great precision over long distances, including with munitions released by aircraft or surface ships, for example. But to work well, the firing unit must know in detail where its target is, which direction it’s traveling and how fast. This is another critical role for MQ-9B.
Advanced aircraft hardware is only one part of the solution that makes the SeaGuardian and SkyGuardian revolutionary. The amount of information that the aircraft can collect over many hours of operation could easily become overwhelming to its human operators and the other consumers of the intelligence it produces. This is where the vendor, GA-ASI, also makes the difference: with software.
High levels of automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning make SeaGuardian simpler to operate and streamline the exploitation of its reporting. This starts aboard the aircraft itself, where onboard systems can process data and highlight anomalies during a patrol.
For example, SeaGuardian might observe the presence of a vessel using its sensors but not detect it broadcasting on the Automatic Identification System (AIS). Sometimes ships that turn off their AIS signal are attempting to evade detection. SeaGuardian can call this to the attention of human operators. Or the aircraft might detect two vessels in very close proximity on the surface – ships that might be transferring illicit oil or other contraband from one to another. But day or night, in any weather, the crews can’t hide from the SeaGuardian.
For human operators and the coast guard, law enforcement, customs agency and other officials depending on them, software also is a differentiator. GA-ASI’s System for Tasking and Real Time Exploitation – known as STARE – is the gateway from aircraft operations to the processing, exploitation, and dissemination of intelligence.
STARE doesn’t only receive inputs from SeaGuardian. It also can ingest data from many other sources and create a powerful and yet easy to use common operating picture, one that speeds the work of officials or commanders who need to go from assessing what is taking place to how they’ll respond.
In short, powerful software combined with advanced aircraft hardware delivers an unrivaled tier
of multi-domain and multi-mission capability. Risks posed by major revanchist powers in the Asia Pacific region or civil security challenges closer to home call for the best possible intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance so that responsible governments are equipped with as much knowledge as possible to help them decide how to act.
Japan and other governments are leading the way with MQ-9B SeaGuardian. The vast opportunities presented by SeaGuardian can offer New Zealand cost-effective solutions to some of its most pressing security challenges.