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What is a MQ-9 Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Sensor Operator?

The Royal Australian Air Force, under Project AIR 7003 Phase 1, is looking to gain a competitive advantage within the region with its acquisition of 12 MQ-9B SkyGuardian Remotely Piloted Aircraft System. Trained by the United States Air Force, Warrant Officer Samuel Carson shares with us his experiences to highlight some of advanced sensor capabilities. Yet new technologies often bring with them new challenges. In this article, WOFF Carson details some of the unique challenges RPA systems bring, providing an opportunity to mitigate its impact to personnel through forearmed awareness.

The General Atomics built MQ-1/9 Remotely Piloted Aircraft have been providing persistent Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare (ISREW) and armed options for coalition war fighters since the early 2000’s. The MQ-9A Reaper, the latest operational version, excels in a force protection role; facilitating persistent effects such as Close Air Support (CAS), battle damage assessment and real-time command situational awareness. The MQ-9 crew model requires a remote pilot (RP) and Sensor Operator (SO). The SO is an integral aircrew member of the dual seat MQ-1/9 series of RPAS, operating directly alongside and in conjunction with the RP. MQ-1/9 RPA are flown remotely from Ground Control Stations (GCS) through beyond line of sight satellite links. Often the GCS and RP/ SO can be on opposite sides of the globe to the RPA operation area. This article offers a glimpse into my experience with the United States Air Force (USAF) training continuum, operations and the future of MQ-9 RPA operations for Australia.

A computer-generated MQ-9B decked out in RAAF colours. Note that this article is about the MQ-9A [Supplied]
A computer-generated MQ-9B in RAAF colours. Note that this article is about the MQ-9A [Supplied]

Embedded within the United States Air Force

In July 2018, I completed the USAF’s Initial Qualification Training (IQT) on the MQ-9A Reaper, in New Mexico, USA. The training included; ISR theory, basic surface attack, CAS and combat search and rescue. After the successful completion of IQT, I was posted to the 42nd Attack Squadron (ATKS) in Nevada, USA. Here I gained valuable combat experience and contributed to operational mission effectiveness. The first order of business at the 42 ATKS was to progress through the Mission Qualification Training (MQT). This involved conducting training scenarios on operational flights, and qualifying in both 42 ATKS and supported task force tactics, techniques and procedures. Upon completion of MQT I joined a shift crew supporting 24/7 global operations in a 5 day on / 3 day off flying shift arrangement.

Pre-mission. Shifts would begin with a mass brief, which included updates to current operations, such as flying restrictions and intelligence updates. On completion of the mass brief, focus shifted to individual crew planning delving into the mission specifics. The pilot and I would then attend an individual and tailored intelligence brief, a flying authorisation brief, then proceeding to the GCS for execution of flying activities.

Pre-mission checks within the GCS included verifying l operating systems such as the; datalinks, communications, payloads and weapons. The standard weapon load out for my operating region was four AGM-114 Hellfire missile variants and either a GBU-12 or GBU-38.

Onstation. While on task, the main role of the SO is to operate the Multi-spectral Targeting System (MTS). The MTS is made up of multiple cameras including; infrared, day and low light TV. I would use a combination of all camera settings in their different field of views to complete the mission, be it armed overwatch of friendly forces or Patterns Of Life surrounding a compound or village. The MTS included two laser systems, the Laser Designator/Range Finder. These systems precisely designate targets for employment of laser-guided munitions, and a laser target marker.

During this posting, I flew 112 sorties totalling over 500 combat hours in support of the coalition operations. In the execution of these operations, I conducted multiple precision airstrikes, aiding in the disruption and destruction of the hostile forces networks. In addition, I supported various raids ensuring safety of coalition ground forces. This was the most fulfilling time in my career so far, albeit some of the most challenging as well .

SO in future Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) RPAS capability

Under AIR 7003, the RAAF has selected the MQ-9B Sky Guardian. This evolved MQ variant brings new operating concepts and opportunities through advanced sensors and fully certified systems, enabling it to operate in all environments. Armed RPAS operations bring new and unique challenges to the Australian Defence Force (ADF), requiring adaptations of CONOPS and support mechanisms. The Deployed In Garrison (DIG) concept is one such change which will require significant consideration. The concept of personnel conducting enduring combat operations from a fixed home location is something the ADF has little experience in. Such scenarios are known to be highly stressful, especially when considering that crews may possibly employ weapons followed closely by family time at home. This is unique to the DIG concept and is generally not something that deployed in garrison members have had to navigate on a daily basis. Support to members operating in a DIG concept will be key to the success of RPAS in the future ADF.

The privilege of being a SO and having the ability to change the outcome of a battle or saving coalition personnel lives, will make this an experience I will take forward with me for the rest of my career.

WOFF Samuel Carson joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 2006 as an Avionics Technician. After remustering in 2012 to Airborne Electronics Analyst (AEA), he flew operational missions on the AP-3C Orion (900 hrs) and later on the E-7A Wedgetail (1400 hrs). In 2018 WOFF Carson was selected to embed with the United States Air Force (USAF) MQ-9A Reaper program where he completed an operational flying tour in a USAF MQ-9A Reaper squadron (550hrs), as a Sensor Operator. He subsequently trained as a Sensor Instructor at a USAF MQ-9A Reaper training squadron (200hrs). He is now using his knowledge and experience as a Staff Officer in Air Force Headquarters, to inform the Project Air 7003 acquisition of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian for Australia. He aims to join the first crews to operate the Australian MQ-9B Sky Guardian as a Sensor Operator. He is married to an ex-serving member and has four children.


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