There be Dragons!

General Atomics SOAR SIGINT Pod
This artist’s rendering of General Atomics’ SOAR SIGINT pod shows it suspended beneath the aircraft’s inner wing hardpoint. Is the UK’s Outdragon COMINT capability based on this system?

Reports on social media emerged in April that Royal Air Force General Atomics MQ-9A Reaper uninhabited aerial vehicles are flying equipped with the Outdragon signals intelligence system.

Open sources have stated that Outdragon is primarily a podded airborne Communications Intelligence (COMINT) system. Outdragon’s role appears to be the detection, location and tracking of persons of interest via their electromagnetic signals. The analysis continued that these signals could include cellphone and wireless router transmissions, among others. Cellphones tend to use Ultra High Frequency (300 megahertz/MHz to three gigahertz/GHz) wavebands while wireless routers use frequencies of 2.4GHz, five gigahertz and six gigahertz. Taking these wavebands into account, it is reasonable to assume that Outdragon covers frequencies of circa 30MHz to six gigahertz. Extending frequencies into the Very High Frequency (30MHz to 300MHz) part of the spectrum would let the capability also detect, locate and track individuals using VHF communications systems. Outdragon equips the Royal Air Force’s (RAF’s) General Atomics MQ-9A Reaper Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

The MQ-9A has an operational altitude of 25,000 feet/ft (7,500 metres/m). Outdragon could detect and process communications signals at a range of circa 192 nautical miles/nm (356 kilometres/km) at this altitude. The pod is likely to have impressive sensitivity. Assume there is a cellphone transmitting a 300MHz signal with 0.6 watts/W of transmission power from an antenna with a gain of 12 decibels/db across a 300km (162nm) range. The cellphone transmission will have a strength of circa -201dB by the time it reaches the pod. Generally speaking, the closer a negative decibel signal strength is to zero the stronger that signal will be.

Outdragon procurement

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request made to the British government did shed some light on the Outdragon capability. The UK government procured Outdragon from General Atomics in April 2018 for $5 million as a Foreign Military Sale (FMS) from the United States. Additional information regarding Outdragon was not forthcoming with the FOI response citing national security interests. A further procurement was made in April 2019 worth $2.2 million for the modification and integration of Outdragon onboard the RAF’s MQ-9As.

Mission set

UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) documents in the public domain provide some additional information: Outdragon can be fitted on the MQ-9A’s number 8 underwing hardpoint. The documents continue that Outdragon supports combat ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) missions. When performing combat ISR, Outdragon is carried alongside MBDA Brimstone-3 air-to-surface missiles, and Raytheon Paveway-IV GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) and laser-guided bombs. When flying non-combat ISR missions, the aircraft exclusively deploys the Outdragon pod. The combat ISR configuration enables persons-of-interest to be detected, located, identified and attacked should this be required by the mission. Amalgamating the COMINT capability with kinetics gives the RAF a highly responsive reconnaissance and strike asset. Such capabilities are particularly useful for Counter-Insurgency (COIN) operations. Reports have stated that RAF MQ-9As are routinely based at Ali Al Salem airbase in central Kuwait. This location is well-placed for supporting RAF operations, particularly COIN efforts, around the Middle East. Although the aircraft can be flown from the base in Kuwait, their flying operations may be controlled from RAF Waddington airbase, eastern England.

Off-the-shelf?

Much remains unknown vis-à-vis Outdragon. For example, it appears that Outdragon is not a product name per se but instead maybe a British codename for a US-supplied system. Given that the procurement was made directly from General Atomics this suggests the capability is one that the company directly produces. General Atomics’ Scalable Open Architecture Reconnaissance pod (SOAR) can be configured for electronic intelligence and COMINT gathering. SOAR has been developed in partnership with L3Harris. General Atomics also provides a podded electronic warfare system called Sledgehammer. Sledgehammer is a communications jamming system and there is no indication that Outdragon has such attributes. Certainly, Outdragon’s relatively inexpensive procurement price of circa $7.7 million seems to indicate it was an off-the-shelf purchase. The fact that it had been purchased as an FMS also points to an off-the-shelf procurement. Much remains unknown regarding Outdragon, but recent social media interest is helping cast some light on this intriguing capability.

RAF MQ-9A Flying Log and Fatigue Data Sheet
This screen capture of an RAF Flying Log and Fatigue Data Sheet shows the location of the Outdragon pod on the underwing hardpoint of the MQ-9A Reapers flown by the Royal Air Force.

by Dr. Thomas Withington