A U.S. Air Force officer has disclosed that an MQ-9 Reaper drone scored its first ever air-to-air kill in an exercise nearly a year ago. This comes months after the service announced that it was looking to give at least some of these unmanned aircraft the ability to take on aerial threats.
Military.com got the details in a September 2018 interview with U.S. Air Force Colonel Julian Cheater, head of the 432nd Wing, the service’s premier drone unit, which is situated at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada. The War Zone's own Tyler Rogoway outlined this exact capability back in March 2018, after the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio had said it would give General Atomics, which builds the MQ-9, a sole-source contract to support the first step of what it referred to as the Reaper Air-to-Air Missile (RAAM) program.
“Something that's unclassified but not well known, we recently in November  … launched an air-to-air missile against a maneuvering target that scored a direct hit,” Cheater told Military.com. “It was an MQ-9 versus a drone with a heat-seeking air-to-air missile, and it was direct hit … during a test.”
Cheater did not name the exercise, the type of target, or the weapon the Reaper used to shoot it down. It is very likely that the “heat-seeking air-to-air missile” was an AIM-9X Sidewinder. At present, the MQ-9's typical loadout can consist of precision-guided air-to-ground missiles and bombs, fuel tanks, and sensor pods.
In November 2016, U.S. Navy Captain James Stoneman, in charge of the Air-to-Air Missiles Program Office at Naval Air Systems Command, released a picture, seen above, of an MQ-9 carrying an AIM-9X in a briefing at the Gulf Coast chapter of the National Defense Industry Association’s annual Air Armament Symposium. Stoneman’s presentation at the 2017 iteration of this gathering is unfortunately not available online. The Navy is the central manager for the Sidewinder family across the services.
Reports that the Air Force has been considering adding air-to-air weaponry to the Reapers dates back as far as 2003. At that time, the service had armed its now retired MQ-1 Predators with the air-to-air version of the heat-seeking Stinger missile to give them some modicum of protection against Iraqi jets. You can read more about that in detail here.
“We develop those tactics, techniques and procedures to make us survivable in those types of environments and, if we do this correctly, we can survive against some serious threats against normal air players out there,” Cheater explained to Military.com. “In many parts of the world, it's almost a hybrid fight by proxy ... the MQ-9 Reaper will certainly be a big part of that. So if you package this aircraft in properly with other aircraft, it will be survivable.”
Compared to Predators with Stingers, Reapers with AIM-9Xs are a far more capable combination. This Sidewinder model is an impressive missile by itself, especially in its latest Block II configuration, which features a data link that allows for a lock-on-after-launch capability.
Combined with the Reaper’s own Link 16 data link, this also means that a third party could help supply targeting information to the unmanned aircraft’s pilots and on to the missile itself. This would improve the situational awareness of the drone’s crew – who might otherwise be limited by the “soda straw” view through the sensor turret in the aircraft’s nose – during an air-to-air fight and allow them to engage enemies at the very limit of the AIM-9X’s range, which is beyond the distance the naked eye can see.
Additional radar warning receivers and other sensors to spot incoming threats and sense-and-avoid technology that detects other aircraft in the vicinity could also help aid the drone pilots in spotting and engaging their opponent. The AIM-9X, which you can read about more here, also has a limited ability to engage ground and surface targets, and there has been talk of whether it might be able to intercept low-flying cruise missiles under certain circumstances, as well. As such, the weapon could give the MQ-9 an additional set of multi-mission capabilities.
Of course, none of this would allow the Reaper to operate in highly contested airspace. But it might allow the aircraft to fly in lower risk areas adjacent to them and give them some defense against threats that might suddenly appear while conducting missions during complex and uncertain hybrid or “gray zone” conflicts that exist in a state somewhere between peace and open fighting.
We’ve already seen how this might occur over Syria, where Russian combat jets have shadowed Air Force Reapers conducting armed reconnaissance missions. Russia’s pilots have harassed manned American aircraft in various portions of the country, as well, creating the potential for dangerous miscalculations.
Iran has also sought to hamper American drone operations in international airspace in the Persian Gulf, which prompted the Air Force to deploy manned aircraft to escort them for a time. More recently, the Iranians have stepped up the use of their own unmanned aircraft in that region to harass U.S. military forces in the air and at sea.
Arming Reapers with AIM-9Xs would serve as a deterrent to any potential opponent. Any attacker would no longer be able to assume that the drones wouldn't try to shoot back.
A Reaper armed with AIM-9Xs would also offer another option to shoot down enemy manned aircraft and drones that might be threatening American or allied forces at a remote location. In 2017, U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle manned combat jets swooped in on two separate occasions to shoot down Iranian drones that were attacking a small garrison in Syria that hosts U.S. and partner forces. An MQ-9 with a load of air-to-air missiles could orbit over a site like this and provide persistent, albeit short-range air defense.
In the future, especially in a high-end conflict against an established opponent, such as Russia or China, Reapers could find themselves suddenly under threat while flying to a theater of operations or between bases within a region. With the Air Force working on concepts for rapidly deploying MQ-9s to a conflict area, it might become increasingly important to give them a way to defend themselves along the way.
“We can fly from one continent to the next,” Col. Cheater, the 432nd Wing commander, noted to Military.com. “We [recently] flew nine [Reapers] from one operating area to another, and that is agile, that is flexible, and it provides options to the combatant commander.”
Adding AIM-9Xs to the Reaper’s arsenal could help ensure expand the drone’s flexibility and ensure the unmanned aircraft remain agile, even in riskier environments than they typically fly in now.
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