The United States Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has signed a contract with General Atomics for three MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones, heavily modified variants of the popular MQ-9 Reaper.
The aircraft were purchased as part of the AFSOC’s Adaptive Airborne Enterprise (A2E) concept, intended to provide support to special operations soldiers along with an array of smaller, expendable drones.
It is the first time AFSOC has purchased the MQ-9 platform, which has been used by the US Air Force at large since 2007.
The MQ-9B SkyGuardian variant was developed to comply with civilian airspace regulations and features larger wingspan and increased endurance when compared to the base model.
So far, the United Kingdom is the only operator of the variant, which was adopted by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 2021 under the name Protector.
Australia was also preparing to purchase the model, but cancelled its contract in 2022.
According to General Atomics, the MQ-9B has a loitering time of over 40 hours and features an array of the latest radars and sensors for surveillance missions.
It also has nine hardpoints and can carry more than 2,100 kilograms (4,700 pounds) of payload which includes additional surveillance equipment or munitions for strike missions.
Other MQ-9 variants are used by numerous countries including the UK, Japan, India and France. They have been one of the main medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) drones used by NATO forces for more than a decade.
In November 2022 General Atomics said it was ready to supply MQ-9s to Ukraine, in addition to lighter MQ-1 Reaper drones.