Unmanned and Unarmed: Belgian MQ-9B SkyGuardians

In October 2018 a Letter of Intent was signed between the US and Belgium for the purchase of 4 MQ-9B SkyGuardians, approved on 25 March 2019, as a replacement for the old B-Hunter UAV’s. The decision to acquire the SkyGuardian was its integration into unsegregated civilian air space operations. In 2020 a agreement was reached with the UK for a deeper level of cooperation on the same RPAS system. The Belgian Skyguardians will be based in Florennes for which specific infrastructure will be build on the airbase. The main intent for the usage of this platform is Intelligence, Surveillance, Target, Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR). So far, so good.

By POA(Phot) Tam McDonald – Photo. source.

We all know the MQ-9B SkyGuardian (as well as the earlier MQ-9 Predator B/Reaper) and predominantly the MQ-1A Reaper (2001-2018) by the American usage as armed Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) against terrorist and insurgent forces which lead to fierce debate as to the legality of usage of these weapon systems. My understanding of the debate was that it was mostly focused on the legality of targeting and sometimes the violation of sovereignty that came with it. There was a ethical debate related to the usage of armed UAS platforms as to the verification of the target and the ‘man-in-the-loop’ aspect that had changed in comparison to a manned weapon platform. In essence there is still a man-in-the-loop deciding but he/she is physically more detached but not psychologically.

The United Kingdom, France and Italy are the sole – to my knowledge – armed operators of the MQ-9 type UAS in Europe . Greece has acquired the MQ-9B SeaGuardian for Maritime usage. Spain, the Netherlands as is Belgium are unarmed operators of the MQ-9 type UAS. It is unclear to me to what extent the German systems will remain unarmed.

As we look at the evolution of Unmanned Weapon Systems in the past 3 decades and their usage on the battlefield it would be an understatement to say that they’re here to merely stay. Their massive proliferation on the battlefield by state and non-state actors has made it impossible to wage war without it and without protection against it. Whether it is a ‘traditional’ UAS like the MQ-9 or its loitering ammunition, whether it is in the air, on land or at sea…they’re everywhere.

We’ve come to a point where there should be no longer much discussion whether or not a democratic State should go ‘down the path of armed UAS’. The battlefield and the widespread proliferation (including amongst non-state actors, remember Kheimim attack) has already determined that discussion. What remains is the aspect of Rules of Engagement and protection against such systems. However, in Belgium they’re still at the phase of ‘should we go down this path or not’. The answer is seemingly: No.

Why Belgium is keeping the MQ-9B’s unarmed

The reasons explained by the Minister of Defence today is twofold:

  • The decision to acquire the MQ-9B did not include a budget to arm these and the current policy has not anticipated a budget to do so.
  • The fundamental difference between a manned aircraft and a UAS. A pilot in a manned aircraft engages a target and initiates weapons release using buttons on a joystick; whilst when using a UAS this is done from a distance commanded through electromagnetic waves, which can be ‘disturbed’ (14.02, last paragraph, pdf)

This is the answer given by the Belgian Minister of Defence, Ludivine Dedonder, to a question from Peter Buysrogge (N-VA, member of parliament) following the refusal of this proposed resolution 2098 regarding ‘expanding the Defence capacity in UAS and Counter UAS’. As part of this proposition it was pleaded to arm the MQ-9B’s. Obviously, as a resolution introduced by a opposition party it was voted away by the sitting government coalition parties on 26 October 2022.

The resolution argued that the democratization of weaponized UAS has changed warfare and made it more accessible to a lot more warring parties and highly effective against expensive weapon systems such as Buk M1 and Pantsir S1. This requires a reflection and shift towards defending against these smaller or more cost-effective weapon system but also going with the flow and arming whilst expanding the UAS fleet (2xRQ-21; 8xRQ-11, 4x RQ-20 + plethora Mini-UAS for T&E) & knowledge. The resolution didn’t take the Ukrainian war into account as it was introduced in October 2021.

In essence the resolution asked the federal government to  re-evaluate the UAS requirements for the battlefield of the future as well as looking into loitering ammunitions, arm the MQ-9B’s and further thoroughly expand the cooperation with the UK as well as expand Benelux-cooperation in C-UAS. Whilst adhering to a approved resolution 3203 (NL, pdf) – Peter Buysrogge amongst the authors – pleading against ‘killer robots’ or fully autonomous lethal weapon systems.

Given the federal parliament’s Defence Committee voted in majority against resolution 2098 the question was asked on the position of the Defence Staff’s position which was released to parliament and sees no reason or formulates no opposition to arming the MQ-9B’s referring to the ethical considerations on the usage of weapons enveloped and legally restricted through formulated Rules of Engagement. This means that the Minster of Defence and its staff have a difference of opinion regarding arming the MQ-9B’s. On its own that’s not really an issue.

However, the answer of the Minister of Defence as to her (government’s) stance and support to not arming the MQ-9B reflects the political position of Belgium in this matter.

Budget was never provided nor has been anticipated for in the near future. That is the essence of politics, one usually adapts when the situation changes and provides the necessary funds to do so. Go tell ‘Stop Oil Now’ that no ‘climate action’ will be undertaken because we didn’t anticipate nor previously provided budget for such policy. They’ll start blowing themselves up rather than gluing themselves to paintings.

The second reason is probably the most striking. Because the engagement and weapons release is done through a command or action that is ‘electromagnetically’ sent to the UAS for weapons engagement. To simplify things: it’s the transmission of the release command that poses an issue and forms the main difference when the same weapon is being released by a pilot on board a F-16. It is a baffling disregard of the modern battlefield that is undergoing thorough digitalization, which has been happening since the 1990s or the advent of computing power.

Yes, in theory the signal for weapons release could be spoofed or jammed or interfered with as it is sending a signal from a ground station to the UAS platform to trigger the weapons release. But in the modern age where combat assets exchange signals continuously through tactical data links and the increased digitalization of weapon systems it is theoretically always possible to ‘hack your way’ into a weapon system using the signals exchange to interfere with its operation. That is the basis of electronic warfare. Yes, UAS systems have been ‘hacked’ and even made to land in enemy held terrain. In theory its not impossible but there should be safeguards.

Let’s try and look at this through a theoretical example. A Belgian UAS is being operated from across the world from a ground station in Florennes. It is flying over Oblivioustan in either a ISTAR or Overwatch role, gathering information or observing ground forces operating in the field. During this phase it receives actionable intelligence on a target or observes enemy forces whilst it has an armed capacity. It is redirected to engage a target. Thus begins a process of targeting whereby the target is observed, confirmed and an engagement zone is defined subsequently the green light is requested from an officer and red card holder to engage according to the RoE. During this proces the weapon is suddenly released and the target is fired upon because a third party has hijacked the command signal (which is encrypted); and the target is destroyed. Highly doubtful, but more realistically someone who has this capability can also take over command of the UAS asset and subsequently engage other targets. But if you can do this then it is more than likely you’re winning the electronic/signals warfare bit and you can spoof other encrypted military assets and lure them into false targeting and destruction.

The 15 second window – Graphic: Mike Tsukamoto and Dash Parham/staff
Source: Air & Spaces Forces Magazine: Remotely Piloted Aircraft: Implications for future warfare
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If this is the issue the Minister of Defense wanted to declare then one might as well disband the entire armed forces or return to 1940. Simply due to the further digitalization of the battlespace and the level of existing ‘digitalization’. Increasingly in the 21st century battlesphere information is being shared through datalinks for targeting purposes as part of the increasing computing power evolution.

Belgium through the CaMo-project is de facto amalgating its land component in to the French army; the basis of this ‘european defence integration’ is fully adopting its SICS (Scorpion) which will provide a full digital bubble (cloud) integrated with the different weapon systems to enhance the engagement of enemy forces. All of the signals captured within the sensory basis and weapon systems used and collaboratively exchanged within SICS can be spoofed or interfered with  to lead to false targeting or gross misuse of weapons. The same can theoretically be done to any military asset that exchanges signals to increase its situational awareness or uses it for targeting regardless of where the ‘man-in-the-loop’ is, whether he/she is in a cockpit or on a ground station. I kind of thought that’s why we established a ‘Cyber command’ to counter such threats, amongst other things.

So, one day in 2030 (day 3203 of the Ukraine war) we have Belgian soldiers sitting in EBRC Jaguar looking at their computer screens with all of the data received through SICS increasing their situational awareness when suddenly they receive a threat warning on their screen requiring imminent engagement using a MMP missile on a target 4.5km away without a direct line of sight. But all of the received data tells the operator in the Jaguar that it’s a T-34M about the outflank a group of VBMR Griffons that got lost enroute. The operator engages and fires the MMP at the ‘T-34M’. Subsequently, 3 minutes later the Jaguar operator receives a worrying message that a French Leclerc tank has been destroyed 4.5km away and there are indications the enemy has infiltrated the line given the angle of attack… . Just like a ‘UAV’ a Combat Information System (SICS) can be ‘hacked’ through its datasharing (signals) and dubed into engaging the wrong target, regardless whether or not there is someone literally ‘behind the trigger’ and it’s hardwire to the weapon system.

How SICS/Scorpion works

The decision to not weaponize the MQ-9 system is a limiting factor along with resolution 3203 against ‘killer robots’, whilst for a modern democratic State the limiting factor should be the legal framework it upholds regarding the usage of weapons on the battlefield, as defined in its Rules of Engagement. Belgium is known by some partnering countries as having a strict RoE policy without literally saying we’ve probably been a utter pain in the ass for some when flying sorties against IS in the Middle East. The question should be asked whether or not Belgium can operate together in a theatre of operations with a partnering country that uses weaponized UAS systems (and loitering ammunition) in the same theatre or in close support of Belgian forces. France is weaponizing its MQ-9 SkyGuardians, given CaMo, are we going to doctrinally allow the usage thereof in conjunction with Belgian forces? If the answer is ‘yes’ then why should it be an issue for Belgium to weaponize theirs?

If electronic warfare and the danger of signal spoofing or hacking is perceived as a great danger within a military context; then why are we investing into SICS? Then why are we further digitalizing our armed forces for the future battlespace? Do we still want to be able to defend outselves in the 21st century or fully free-ride on NATO and EU?

Keeping the MQ-9B unarmed also means not arming it for self-protection using AIM-9 Sidewinder or ATAS?

Written by David Vandenberghe – former assistant to a MP (Defence matters).

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