November 24, 2020:
After more than a decade of unsuccessful efforts the U.S. Air Force finally obtained a SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) pod for its MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. Unlike earlier efforts, this SIGINT pod works. It was developed by veteran military electronics developer L3 along with Predator manufacturer General Atomics (GA). L3 paid for most of the development of their FBSI (Full-Band Signals Intelligence ISR SIGINT pod. The ISR stands for Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance. GA contributed their expertise on getting specialized pods to work on their large UAVs and paid for that themselves. Development of the pod took eight months plus a few months of testing.
A U.S. Air Force Reaper in Poland was recently spotted carrying the FBSI pod. That reaper belonged to the 52nd Expeditionary Operations Group Detachment 2, which regularly operates Reapers in East Europe, often close to the Russian border. Sending a Reaper close to the Russian border while carrying the FBSI SIGINT pod is an excellent way to collect data on Russian military electronics near the border and annoy the Russians as well.
The FBSI comes after fifteen years of failed efforts to get a SIGINT pod that would work. Back in 2006 the air force decided to equip some Predator (MQ-1) and Reaper (MQ-9) UAVs with SIGINT capabilities. The air force gave defense firm Northrup a contract to develop two versions of the ASIP-1C (Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload 1C) pod. A smaller one for the for the Predator, while the full-capability ASIP-2C would operate from the larger Reaper. Both pods were to use technology already used by signals intelligence equipment that equips the U-2 (a manned recon aircraft) and Global Hawk (the largest UAV in service). Seemed easy enough. Repackage existing components into a pod and get sufficient electrical power from the UAV and that would be it. There were problems, lots of them.
While the 1.1-ton MQ-1 was able to carry (and supply power to) about 91 kg (200 pounds) worth of signals intelligence electronics, to obtain real results you needed a larger UAV. The 4.7 ton Reaper can handle over 230 kg (500 pounds) worth. The more electronic monitoring gear a UAV can carry, the more frequencies it can monitor. A UAV has an advantage in that it can spend a lot of time in the air, providing "persistence," which is very valuable for electronic eavesdropping. You never know when the bad guys will turn on their cell phone, walkie-talkie or satellite phone. When they do, you want to be there to capture the conversation.
Currently, such monitoring is largely done by a small number of U.S. Air Force (RC-135) and Navy (EP-3) aircraft. The U.S. Army also mounts SIGINT equipment on some helicopters. The new SIGINT gear for the UAVs was supposed to be ready by 2010 but problems were encountered and more money and time were allowed with 2014 as the new delivery date. Only the smaller Predator version got into limited service. When presented with the L3 pod the air force tested and accepted it.