U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command has become the first domestic customer for the MQ-9B SkyGuardian–a follow-on to the renowned MQ-9A Reaper, General Atomics said on March 6.

Under the contract, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) said that it will provide three MQ-9Bs to develop AFSOC’s Adaptive Airborne Enterprise (A2E) concept, which relies heavily on artificial intelligence (AI).

A2E “envisions AFSOC projecting air power for special operations forces from beyond the horizon, using a family of large UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] and expendable, small UAS from permissive to denied environments,” GA-ASI said.

Last September, Air Force Lt. Gen. James Slite, then the AFSOC commander, discussed A2E in an Air & Space Forces Association forum.

“When we we as an Air Force got into the remotely piloted aircraft business in the 1990s, we did it the way you might expect the Air Force to do it,” he said. “We have an airplane. Well, if you have an airplane, what do airplanes need? Airplanes need pilots. Well, then let’s have a pilot for the airplane. Pilots need cockpits. Well, we’ll build a cockpit for the pilot so we built this ground control station and called it a cockpit and put a pilot in it. What kind of things do pilots do in cockpits to fly airplanes? They climb, descend, take off and land, and turn left and right, and memorize emergency procedures, exhaust gas temperature limits, and RPM limitations.”

“That model–one pilot, one cockpit, one data link to one airplane–has persisted for the better part of 30 years,” Slife said. “AI and automation have advanced to the point where a lot of that is not required. That’s a very manpower intensive methodology for operating aircraft so one of the things we’re looking at is moving to an open architecture control layer that has the ability to control multiple platforms/multiple types–it’s really platform agnostic–with an operator, not necessarily a pilot, and not one operator per aircraft, but one operator/a control layer with multiple types of platfroms on the other end with the data links. That is all here and now stuff. It’s a matter of bringing it together into a logical architecture.”

“We’re moving pretty quickly down that path inside of AFSOC,” Slife said. “100 percent of that is dependent on automation and AI at the platform level, at the edge, if you will.” Slife is now the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for operations.

The Pentagon has been examining how to use AI to enable over the horizon targeting (Defense Daily, Feb. 9, 2022).

David Alexander, the president of GA-ASI, said in a March 6 GA-ASI statement that MQ-9B’s “combination of range, endurance, reduced manpower footprint, and overall flexibility will make it a true centerpiece of AFSOC’s future family of advanced UAS systems.”

“The MQ-9A has served as the centerpiece of USSOCOM’s Intelligence Surveillance, and Reconnaissance enterprise, providing battlefield awareness and precision strike capabilities tailored to counter violent extremist organizations,” AFSOC said on March 6. “However in contested or denied environments, AFSOC is shifting from multiple operators controlling a single MQ-9A to a single Air Commando directing a family of systems. Adaptive Airborne Enterprise is a concept that marks the evolution from exclusively using the MQ-9 platform for intelligence gathering and strike capabilities to using a family of uncrewed and optionally crewed systems to achieve battlefield effects.”

“A2E will increase the number of platforms AFSOC operators can manage by an order of magnitude, and through those systems, cover more terrain and prosecute more target across the spectrum of operating environments,” the command said. “As part of A2E, AFSOC expects to take possession of its first MQ-9B, funded by congressional add, by the end of the calendar year. The MQ-9Bs currently slated for AFSOC will not be used operationally. They will be used to rapidly pathfind A2E concepts and technologies, planned to include sUAS and autonomy integration, beginning in calendar year 2024.”

GA-ASI said that the United Kingdom and Belgium are to buy the MQ-9B, while Japan already has them.