It’s Official, Contractor-Owned MQ-9 Reaper Drones Will Watch Over Marines in Afghanistan

The deal will be an important stepping stone for the service as it gets closer to acquiring bigger, multi-mission unmanned aircraft.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Afghanistan photo


The U.S. Navy has awarded General Atomics a contract worth more than $39.5 million to fly its own MQ-9 Reaper drones to keep watch over a U.S. Marine task force in Afghanistan, a possible plan The War Zone Was first to report on in January 2018. The deal comes as the Marines are sending personnel to train with the U.S. Air Force on operating these same drones as the former service moves ahead in developing its own large, multi-purpose unmanned aircraft.

The Pentagon announced the Navy had followed through on its initial proposal in its daily contracting announcement on June 19, 2018. According to that notice, the arrangement involves work in Yuma, Arizona, home to a Marine Corps Air Station, and Poway, California, where General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. has its headquarters, as well as in Afghanistan.

Per the original information, contractors will both fly the Reapers remotely and maintain them in-country. We don’t know how many drones in total will be involved in the operations.

Documents the Naval Air Systems Command released in January 2018 said that it was looking to establish a single “orbit” to monitor one particular area at a time for at least 16 hours a day, seven days a week. General Atomics may be called upon to provide a 24-hour “surge” of coverage. The contractors will perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions only and will not fly armed aircraft.

An Air Force tug tows an MQ-9 in Afghanistan. The General Atomics' owned and operated Reapers won't be armed and will only fly surveillance missions., USAF

If the orbit is modeled on the Air Force’s standard MQ-9 “combat air patrol,” General Atomics could have to provide at least four Reapers. This arrangement keeps one drone on station at all times. At any one time, an unmanned aircraft is heading out to relieve the one in position, while a third one returns to refuel. The extra drone means personnel can take one out of rotation for routine maintenance and also offers a potential reserve in case something prevents any of the other three from performing their mission.

All of this will be in direct support of the Marine’s Task Force Southwest. This element is advising and assisting Afghan troops in the notorious Helmand province and in neighboring Nimroz province, both of which are situated along the border with Pakistan.

General Atomics’ crews will almost certainly fly the actual surveillance missions from the United States, most likely from ground control stations at Yuma, while contractors on the ground will be responsible for landings and takeoffs using line-of-sight data links. The U.S. military refers to this as “remote-split” operations.

The Navy’s initial plans also stated that the Reapers would have to come equipped with an imaging radar system and a multi-spectral camera system. General Atomics’ offers its own Lynx multi-mode radar as an option on the drones and each one comes standard with a sensor turret under the nose containing both electro-optical and infrared cameras, a combination that would meet the service’s requirements.

A sample of the imagery that the Lynx radar can produce in its synthetic aperture mode., General Atomics

This is hardly the first time the U.S. military has employed contractor-operated surveillance aircraft in Afghanistan. Still, the contract does speak to the resurgence of American operations there, especially in the air.

The kind of persistent surveillance that the MQ-9s can offer has been historically important for denying the Taliban and other insurgent elements the ability to move about with impunity, particularly at night. This, in turn, has been essential in keeping these militants from making significant gains.

As of January 2018, the Air Force already had three squadrons worth of Reapers at Kandahar Airfield, the largest single deployed contingent of MQ-9s anywhere, ever. Since the beginning of 2017, the total number of American air strikes in Afghanistan have also steadily begun to increase, a product of President Donald Trump's new strategy for the region. These numbers had previously dropped off after President Barack Obama announced an end to major combat operations in the country in December 2014.

US Air Force and Royal Air Force MQ-9 Reapers at Kandahar Airfield., USAF

But for the Marines, having the Reapers overhead is also an indication of the service’s own ambitions to acquire drones that would greatly exceed the capabilities of the MQ-9. At present, its dedicated drone units operate smaller, catapult-launched types, such as the RQ-7 Shadow and RQ-21 Blackjack.

The Corps is actively in the process of defining the exact requirements for what it is calling the Marine Air Ground Task Force Unmanned Aircraft System Expeditionary, or MUX. This will be a vertical takeoff and landing capable unmanned aircraft capable of performing a number of different roles, including airborne early warning, intelligence gathering, and potentially strike missions. You can read more about that program and what we know about it so far here.

An official graphic showing some of the possible missions the Marines are looking at for their future MUX drones., USMC

Before that happens, the Marines in Helmand will now be able to get a firsthand look at what it’s like to work with larger unmanned aircraft that are organic to their chain of command in a real-world setting. It is almost certain that this experience will help inform the continued development of the MUX drones and the service’s concepts of operation for employing them. It could also provide an opportunity to discover additional requirements for those unmanned aircraft that might not have otherwise become apparent.

The Marines are already looking to make use of the Reaper platform as a training tool in other ways. At present, the service sends personnel to train how to fly unmanned aircraft with members of the Air Force at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, but none of those individuals go through courses to operate larger so-called “Group 5” types, such as the MQ-9.

“We’re asking the Air Force, and they’ve approved, to send some of our crews through the finished training so they can fly Reapers,” U.S. Marine Corps Colonel James Frey, head of the Aviation Expeditionary Enablers Branch within the service’s top headquarters for aviation issues, told USNI News earlier in June 2018. This “is good because you build that base to have folks that eventually will be into MUX, so they’re used to having a Group 5 type things, so we’re not pulling everybody from fixed-wing and rotary-wing platforms.”

A US Marine Corps RQ-21 Blackjack sits on its catapult., USMC

However, the Marine Corps doesn’t expect to reach initial operational capability with any variant of MUX until at least 2028 and that's if the program goes according to schedule without any delays or other developmental hiccups. The service also has no official near-term plans to acquire its own Reapers or even any of the still air-worthy MQ-1 Predators that the Air Force recently retired.

“Every Marine wants a Reaper in his hip pocket, and it’s just not the way the world operates,” Frey told USNI news. But “we’re not ready to cut anything right yet to get [MQ-9s], so this is a natural transition,” he added about the increased training cooperation with the Air Force.

The same goes for working with contractors flying their own Reapers in Afghanistan and it’s possible we may see more such deals supporting Marines in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the future. These efforts will continue to be important stepping stones until the service actually receives its first MUX drones.

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