Friday 19 August 2022

ASW At A Premium: Greece Purchases MQ-9B SeaGuardian UAVs

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
After years of having to delay new acquisitions due to the Greek government-debt crisis, the Hellenic Air Force has recently enjoyed a series of new acquisitions. In 2018, Lockheed Martin was contracted to upgrade 84 F-16C/D Block 52+s to the latest F-16V Block 70/72 (Viper) standard. Two years later, the Greek government signed for 18 Dassault Rafales from France (with a further six ordered in 2021) along with an advanced weapons package consisting of SCALP cruise missiles and AM39 Exocet anti-ship missiles. [1] In June 2022, Greece's prime minister confirmed that the country had sent a request to the Unites States for the purchase of 20 F-35s slated for delivery in the late 2020s. [2]

The revitalisation of the Hellenic Air Force hardly stops there, with an acquisition of ten M-346 advanced jet trainers and an upgrade of its 28 AH-64A/D attack helicopters that would allow them to fire the 25km-ranged Spike NLOS anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) currently also underway. [3] Furthermore, Greece has also attempted to fulfill its long-sought MALE UAV capability through the leasing of four Heron TPs in a maritime configuration from their Israeli manufacturer IAI, with an option to purchase the drones after the ending of the leasing period in the mid-2020s. [4]

Then in early July 2022 it was announced that Greece is to purchase three MQ-9B SeaGuardian UAVs optimised for maritime surveillance from the U.S. for a staggering $400 million. [5] Their proposed acquisition is part of a larger buying spree with the aim of further enhancing the capabilities of the Hellenic Armed Forces amid rising tentions with neighbouring Türkiye, which has recently called for the demilitarisation of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. [6] Although the SeaGuardians are set to introduce novel capabilities to the Hellenic Armed Forces, their price tag, even when considering the advanced radar/sensor systems associated with the drones, is nothing short of exorbitant.

Evidence that the steep price tag is in fact caused by the sensor suite included is demonstrated by a Dutch order for MQ-9 Block 5s in 2015 for $339 million. [7] The proposed sale included four UAVs, four ground stations, six engines, General Atomics’ Lynx synthetic aperture radars with Maritime Wide Area Search capability, targeting systems but no armament. [7] The signing of this deal was eventually postponed until 2020, this time without the Lynx synthetic aperture radar for just $123 million, $216 million less than with the Lynx included! [7] As a further comparison, the UK paid a total of $82 million for three MQ-9B SkyGuardians and three ground control stations in July 2020. [8]

The MQ-9B SeaGuardian is a navalised variant of the proven MQ-9B Reaper UCAV. Born out of a concept originally offered to the U.S. Navy's for its Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) programme (which was eventually won by the MQ-4C Triton), the main selling point of the SeaGuardian is its synthetic aperture radar that can spot surface targets including ships, submarine periscopes, as well as its ability to carry sonobuoy pods for anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Future improvements include the carriage of ASW torpedoes and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles (AAMs) for self defence.
The MQ-9B SeaGuardians will supplement Greece's existing inventory of ASW aircraft, which currently consists of P-3B Orion maritime patrol aircraft and AB-212 and S-70/B-6 Aegean Hawk ASW helicopters. In light of Türkiye's growing submarine capabilities, Greece has invested heavily in the acquisition of additional ASW assets. In 2016 the Hellenic Navy signed a contract for the overhaul and upgrade of five P-3B Orions to be completed in 2023. [9] Three years later the Hellenic Navy signed for seven MH-60R Seahawks to replace its aging AB-212s. The need for the MR-60Rs was apparently so high that they were redirected from a batch originally destined for the U.S. Navy. [10]

The first MH-60R for the Hellenic Navy pictured in December 2021.

In December 2019 General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) already concluded a series of flight demonstrations with the MQ-9 Guardian out of Larissa airbase in Greece to showcase the maritime surveillance capabilities of the platform. [11] The flights were sponsored by the Hellenic Air Force and the Hellenic Coast Guard, and performed for an audience of NATO military and civilian representatives. [11] Apparently, its performance at these demonstrations was sufficiently impressive to convince Greece to overlook its towering price tag.

Though capable of being equipped with a variety of sensor systems, sonobuoys and potentially ASW torpedoes and Sidewinder AAMs in the near future, the MQ-9B SeaGuardian is not a UCAV and thus not intended for use against ground targets. The UCAV role is instead fulfilled by the MQ-9B Block 5 or the MQ-9B SkyGuardian (known as Protector in the UK). The MQ-9B SkyGuardian has an impressive weapon payload capacity of up to eighteen MBDA Brimstone 2 ground attack missiles or twelve Brimstone 2 missiles and two 230kg Paveway IV GPS/INS and laser-guided bombs. Whether Greece is to acquire these or any other UCAV types in the near future is still unknown.

GA-ASI's MQ-9 Guardian demonstrator in front of a Hellenic F-16C Block 52+.

The acquisition of three MQ-9B SeaGuardians will be one of the most significant indicators of what constitutes a new chapter for the Hellenic Armed Forces. Whether by using their advanced sensor systems to locate enemy targets at long ranges or even by detecting submarines in the murky waters of the Aegean Sea, they will deliver capabilities that have long been lacking to a nation that has more shoreline than any other for its size. Although the SeaGuardians will be vulnerable in their role, it can be argued that any ASW asset is faced with such vulnerability, and their strong sensor suite and impressive (and unmanned) flight characteristics make them more suitable than many alternatives. There is no denying that these capabilities come at a hefty cost however, at a time when the Hellenic Armed Forces continues facing difficulties in modernising and replacing its ageing inventory of equipment.

[2] Greece formally requests to buy F-35 fighter jets from US
[3] Σοκ στην Άγκυρα: Έρχονται και «κλειδώνουν» το Αιγαίο τα «φονικά» Ισραηλινά SPIKE NLOS - Εφιάλτης για την Τουρκία - Ανίκητη «ασπίδα» σε Έβρο και νησιά
[6] Stop militarising Aegean islands, Turkey’s Erdogan tells Greece
[7] General Atomics awarded $123 million Netherlands MQ-9 Reaper drone contract  
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