9 May 2016

UK REAPER Drones Now Carrying Probable SIGINT Antennae

May 6, 2016
UK Reaper seen fitted with new ‘classified’ antenna
Gareth Jennings and Martin Streetly
IHS Jane’s International Defence Review
May 6, 2016
The unidentified antenna can be seen on the underfuselage of a UK Reaper ZZ206, between the vertical stabiliser and the main undercarriage. This is one of a few frames in the Sky News report where the antenna was not blurred out to disguise its shape and possible function. Source: Sky News
The United Kingdom has equipped at least one of its General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with a hitherto unknown antenna that may be for signals intelligence (SIGINT), communications, or the long-distance transmission of data, a media report from “somewhere in the Middle East” has shown.
Footage shown on Sky News on 5 May shows a Reaper ZZ206 fitted with a large underfuselage antenna not normally fitted to the aircraft. The appendage is deemed classified enough for the broadcaster to blur it out of several frames of the report, most likely at the insistence of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Interestingly, Sky News has omitted to disguise the system in a number of key shots, probably in error. These multiple-angle shots show the antenna to be a blade fairing, perhaps with a secondary aerodynamic function.
While the antenna’s function is not apparently clear, it may well be some form of communication intelligence receiver for the collection of SIGINT, such as mobile phone intercepts and the like. The fact that the MoD apparently felt the need to request its blurring indicates that the antenna does have some sort of clandestine function, though SIGINT configurations usually entail an array of antennas, as opposed to just one. Another option is a communications antenna for special forces on the ground to direct attacks on enemy positions. Its location under the aircraft would certainly be best placed for either hoovering up data or communicating with the ground.
Alternatively, the blade could be a high frequency (HF) transmitter/receiver for the broadcast/receipt of data over intercontinental distances. Bandwidth limitations are one of the key inhibitors to UAV operations today and such a system, were it to be an HF antenna, would be a major force enabler in their use over the battlefield. Such an upgrade would enable UK operators to obviate the need to use valuable satellite bandwidth, which would ordinarily be in great demand for UAV communications links.
The Royal Air Force is understood to have all 10 of its Reapers flying out of Kuwait in support of UK operations over Iraq and Syria; dubbed Operation 'Shader’. It is unclear if ZZ206 is the only platform equipped with this new system, or if it is a fleet-wide enhancement. What is clear is that it has not previously been seen on any other Reaper in service with the UK or any other operator.

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