At the Indo-Pacific International Maritime Exhibition 2022 in Sydney, Australia, General Atomics has presented a new variant of the MQ-9B Guardian platform: the MQ-9B STOL. The MQ-9B STOL is a conversion kit for existing MQ-9B, replacing the wings and tail assemblies to allow for Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) operations. Much like the existing conversion kits allowing for existing MQ-9Bs to serve as the SeaGuardian, which carry the added fairing underneath that can accommodate the Raytheon SeaVue XMC or Leonardo SeaSpray maritime radars, or the armed SkyGuardian, which has the capability to carry munitions. The MQ-9B carries the Detect-and-Avoid Due Regard radar kit in the nose, allowing for operations in non-segregated airspace alongside other crewed aircraft
What makes the STOL variant unique, however, is the ability to take off and land on runways shorter than 1,000ft. General Atomics advertises this capability as allowing for use aboard naval vessels that support existing STOL solutions such as the F-35B Lightning II and the AV-8B Harrier II. This allowance for a shorter runway lines up with the known specs for the recently announced Mojave aircraft N450MV, which is capable of taking off from runways as short as 400ft at minimum load, or 1,000ft at maximum load. According to General Atomics, the Mojave program has been in development since 2017 and N450MV was revealed to the public in December of 2021.
Promotional images of the MQ-9B STOL show distinct similarities of the new wings and tail for the MQ-9B to the photos and renders that we have seen of the Mojave: thicker wings, extended diagonal tail stabilizers. The existing Mojave prototype carries a Rolls-Royce M250-B17F engine and a 5-bladed propeller. The MQ-9B has the more powerful Honeywell TPE331-10 engine and a 4-bladed propeller; this, combined with the larger wings and tail make it a perfect candidate for short take-off and landing operations.
The MQ-9B STOL fits the bill for the US Marine Corps’ new requirements laid out in the Corps’ 2022 Aviation Plan. Promotional photos of the MQ-9B STOL shows it bearing markings for Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadrons 1 (VMU-1).
VMU-1 was assigned the RQ-21 Blackjack in 2016, started using leased contractor-owned, contractor-operated (COCO) MQ-9As in September 2017, and finally began acquiring ownership of previously-leased MQ-9As in August 2021. This prior experience with the platform makes them a perfect candidate for the STOL variant of the MQ-9B, and allows for more operations closer to the forward edge of battle. Photos posted to the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service Hub show a leased MQ-9A with VMU-1 markings in March 2021.
Header image: Promotional render of the MQ-9B STOL landing on an amphibious assault vessel (General Atomics)