No, not the guys in black shrouds that go around picking up souls, I’m talking about the very real drone series from General Atomics. Introduced in 2007 as a sort of super-sized version of the Predator, variations of the series have clocked six million flight hours and completed 430,495 total missions as of late 2019 while flying 11 percent of total Air Force flying hours, at only 2.6 percent of the USAF’s total flying hour cost– and maintaining a 90 percent availability rate.
The Air Force has quietly pulled off a couple of key mission enhancements in the past couple of months when it comes to Reaper.
In September, a Creech AFB-operated MQ-9 successfully went air-to-air, using an AIM-9X Block 2 Sidewinder missile against a target BQM-167 drone that was simulating an incoming cruise missile.
An MQ-9 Reaper, assigned to the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron, armed with an AIM-9X missile sits on the flight line, Sept. 3, 2020, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Haley Stevens)
This month, they doubled the number of Hellfires that could be mission-carried by a Reaper, growing from four to eight.
A 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron MQ-9A Reaper carrying eight Hellfire missiles sits on the ramp at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., Sept. 10, 2020. This was the first flight test of the MQ-9 carrying this munition load. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Haley Stevens)
This new capability is part of the MQ-9 Operational Flight Program 2409, a software upgrade set to field by the end of calendar year 2020. Previous to this software, the MQ-9 was limited to four AGM-114s across two stations. The new software allows flexibility to load the Hellfire on stations that previously were reserved for 500-pound class bombs or fuel tanks.
“The hardware/launcher is the same that we use on the outboard stations,” said Master Sgt. Melvin French, test system configuration manager. “Aside from the extra hardware required to be on hand, no other changes are required to support this new capability and added lethality. The Reaper retains its flexibility to fly 500-pound bombs on any of these stations, instead of the AGM‑114s, when mission requirements dictate.”
Reaper, with about 200 airframes in USAF service, also has a maritime variant that readers of this page should find very interesting– the MQ-9B SeaGuardian which can be utilized for mine countermeasures, ASW, SAR, and general sea patrol with a 25 hour all-weather loiter time that is cheaper and less crew-intensive than a manned aircraft and could really free up a limited number of P-8s, P-3s, and HC-130Js for more dynamic taskings.
The SeaGuardian variants can carry a 360-degree patrol radar and two 10-tube sonobuoy pods, while still being able to clock in with Hellfires and 500-pound bombs if needed. If you told me they could find a way to mount an anti-ship missile and some Mk. 50 torps, perhaps on a paired aircraft operating in teams, I wouldn’t doubt it.
SeaGuardian is not science fiction. Last month the platform concluded a set of maritime test flights over the sea-lanes off the coast of Southern California and last week kicked off a series of validation flights on Oct. 15 for the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, Japan.