General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) have this month successfully conducted captive carry flight tests of their Sparrowhawk Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS). In a press release from the company, they note; “Sparrowhawk extends and multiplies MQ-9-based sensors, reduces manpower and increases ISR [intelligence surveillance reconnaissance] coverage… Sparrowhawk is a true game changer.”
The concept behind the Sparrowhawk is intriguing- a drone carried by the MQ-9 Reaper or MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned platform that can be launched (and recovered!) to conduct its own unilateral ISR operations. The drone is controlled by GA-ASI’s proprietary Metis Software Defined Control Station and can be operated from a laptop by a ground element.
GA-ASI spell out the advantages:
• Allows below-the-weather ISR, and enables reduced visual and acoustic ISR.
• Enables attritable ISR/EW in the contested environment, allowing the MQ-9 to stand off at safe ranges.
• Employs larger and more expensive payloads at greater transit ranges compared to ground-launched aircraft and air-launched expendables,
• Maintains the chain of custody, through adverse weather, MQ-9 rotations, or with multiple targets.
The possibilities enabled by Sparrowhawk are battle-changing. Beyond extending the range and ISR capabilities of the MQ-9 or MQ-1C, the platform could act as an independent electronic warfare platform to safeguard the parent carrier or follow-on strike aircraft or missiles or indeed it could potentially be armed as a loitering munition in its own right.
For Special Operations Forces or reconnaissance units on the ground in a contested environment, the Sparrowhawk could represent a very capable organic ISR platform, able to penetrate further and more safely than a theater-asset like the Reaper thanks to its reduced acoustic and visual signature. Likewise operations to identify enemy indirect fire positions or to provide real-time ISR in hostile nations whilst conducting counter-terrorism operations.
The Sparrowhawk was not launched from the MQ-9 during the trials which were focused on ironing out any connectivity issues with its carrier, the MQ-9, and testing the platform for aerodynamics. Free flight testing will be the platform’s next step.