Artist's conception of Self-Protection Pod under an MQ-9 Reaper.

Artist's conception of Self-Protection Pod under an MQ-9 Reaper. General Atomics

General Atomics ‘nears deal’ to sell anti-missile pod for its Reaper drones, company says

Self-Protection Pod might have saved the MQ-9 recently downed near Yemen, GA claims.

DUBAI, UAE—General Atomics aims to close a sale of anti-missile pods for its MQ-9 drones to a U.S. military customer next year, a company leader said.

The past year has been rough on the surveillance drone, dubbed Reaper in U.S. service: it’s been shot down by Houthi forces and harassed and crashed into by Russian pilots. 

But the recent downing might have been prevented if the drone had been carrying the Self-Protection Pod made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., or GA-ASI, said company president Dave Alexander.

"We'll be selling a couple of those later next year” to a U.S. customer, Alexander said in an interview at the Dubai Air Show. 

To date, no U.S. MQ-9s carry the pod. In 2021, the U.S. Air Force—the Reaper’s primary American operator—said it would curtail its planned purchases of the 2000s-era drone, saying it wouldn't survive a conflict with Russia or China.

“You can say it isn't survivable and then just walk away and not do anything about it, or you can do something about it,” Alexander said. The pod has a radar warning receiver to detect surface-to-air missiles, so “if a missile comes at us, and it starts targeting us, then we can put out decoys and pull the missile away.” 

And if the drone were outfitted with an air-to-air missile, “I guarantee you that Russian fighter pilot would not be messing around with us anymore if he thought we could shoot him down,” he said.  

Alexander said the Air Force hasn’t needed to equip MQ-9s to defend themselves because the U.S. has always controlled the airspace it was operating in.

“But the missions are changing now. I think more and more they're going to realize, ‘Yeah, there's things we can do,’” he said. 

If the Air Force decides to buy the pods, which run about $4 million apiece, it wouldn’t need one for each of its 300-plus MQ-9s. The pod would likely only be attached if the U.S. wanted to fly over a hotspot. 

Shortly after the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel, the Pentagon started flying MQ-9s over the Gaza Strip to help Israel free hostages from Hamas. 

“Having persistence [to] search day in and day out, and you never lose a second, is a big deal, and that's what this airplane brings. And so hostage rescue has been a big part of MQ-9’s mission since day one,” Alexander said.  

The Air Force announced earlier this year that it would buy three MQ-9B SkyGuardians, a newer version of the drone, for its Special Operations Command. The service wants to experiment with using the drone as a “mothership” to conduct multiple missions and launch smaller unmanned aircraft, Alexander said, adding that they will demonstrate this concept this year.

At the Dubai Air Show, the company is continuing talks over a deal to sell the Emirates 18 MQ-9Bs—a deal that was approved by the U.S. government in 2020, but became entangled in the controversial proposal to sell 50 F-35s and other weapons to the Gulf nation.  

GA-ASI has been working to decouple the MQ-9 and F-35 deals. 

“We've made a lot of progress in the last couple years kind of separating ourselves from the F-35 and Raytheon precision weapons package that they were putting together and that thing got all filled with drama and fell apart, but we were lucky enough to keep momentum moving,” Alexander said.

GA-ASI announced this week that it will work with major Emirati defense conglomerate EDGE Group to integrate weapons onto the MQ-9B. However, the integration will only take place if the U.S. and the UAE finalize the deal. 

“We were able to, with the great help of our D.C. office, push the indigenous weapon approval through and it will be the first time those EDGE weapons are on a U.S. platform, so it's huge, I believe,” Alexander said. 

The UAE’s proposed purchases of F-35s and MQ-9s were never officially coupled, so either one could proceed without the other, Stan Brown, principal deputy assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs, told Defense One Monday. 

“The discussions occurred about the same time, but they are separate arms deals,” Brown said.