MQ-9 Reaper Is Capable Of Defending Itself With Air-To-Air Missiles

The MQ-9 Reaper can engage aerial targets with the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, but the will to field it operationally is another story.

byTyler Rogoway|
AIM-9X Reaper
U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Haley Stevens)


Today's incident between a Russian Su-27 Flanker and a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper that saw the latter crash into the Black Sea after the jet collided with its propeller — read our full report here — has people questioning the defenselessness of the Reaper to nearby aerial threats. In particular, people want to know why they can't be armed to protect themselves. The answer to that question may be surprising to some — they can!

A quick history lesson is needed as well as a reminder about a far more recent revelation.

An MQ-9 flying as part of Red Flag Alaska. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Daniel Snider

The Q-9 Reaper's progenitor, the Q-1 Predator, an aircraft that blazed the trail to the unmanned revolution we are still in the depths of today, was less capable than its successor in every way. But, two decades ago, when faced with a menacing aerial threat, the little Predator quickly went from a defenseless lamb to a wolf that could bite back.

The Predator was outfitted to carry AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missiles under an urgent development initiative led by the USAF's Big Safari office 16 years ago. Air Force Magazine recounts the lightning fast initiative and its wild outcome:

"Some Predators were armed with the AIM-92 Stinger missile, to defend themselves against Iraqi fighters. Getting the Stinger certified on the Predator took only 91 days.

On Dec. 23, 2002—less than three months before Operation Iraqi Freedom began—a Stinger-armed Predator was performing reconnaissance over a no-fly zone when an Iraqi MiG-25 turned in to attack. The Predator fired at the MiG-25, and the TV imagery showed the smoke trails of the two missiles crossing in midair. Unfortunately, the MiG’s missile downed the Predator, but the Iraqi Air Force apparently drew the conclusion the US would have wanted them to: that there was no future in combating Stinger-armed Predators. There were no further attacks against the UAVs."

I wrote a bit more detailed account based on information I had heard back in 2012:

"By 2002 the saber-rattling between the Bush Administration and Saddam’s gang of war criminals and military puppets (who can every forget goons like “Baghdad Bob,” Tariq Aziz, and “Chemical” Ali?) had reached a thundering crescendo. IAEA inspectors were frustrated, the US had assets literally pouring into the region, and the long-established no fly zones were still firmly in place over northern and southern Iraq. 

Tensions increased Saddam’s forces became more emblazoned and defiant towards coalition aerial patrols. It just seemed crystal clear that war was on its way no-matter what really happened. At the same time, America was continuing to realize the true value of the General Atomics' Q-1 series of unmanned aircraft. At the time, less than a decade ago, the USAF only had a small inventory Predators, less than two-dozen to be mores specific, compared with today when well over 200 Q-1 and Q-9 series of unmanned aircraft fly for the USAF.

The Predators were still relatively new when the War On Terror kicked off. USNA

From what I have heard about this unique footnote in military aviation history is that it was somewhat common that MiG-25 Foxbats would make slashing incursions across the no fly zone boundaries, especially when US unmanned aircraft were operating in the areas and when coalition AWACS coverage was offline. The US recognized the increase in Iraqi brazenness and devised a plan to first bait and subsequently deter Iraqi aggression towards unmanned aerial vehicles.

At first the Predators would bait the Iraqi fighters to violate the no fly zone boundary and then they would run. Over time a cat and mouse game ensued, until one day the Predator did not run. Instead it made an intercept course for the fast-flying MiG-25. This is where the video posted below comes into play, you see these were no normal RQ-1 Predators, they were in fact armed with a pair of AIM-92 heat-seeking “Stinger” missiles.

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The MiG-25 is thought to have fired a medium range AA-6 “Acrid” air-to-air missile at a relatively close distance from the diminutive Predator, although still at a long enough distance that the Predator’s AIM-92’s could not lock onto the massive MiG’s heat signature. Thus the Predator fired its missile while the Iraqi’s shot was well on its way. The Iraqi MiG-25 Foxbat missile’s hot exhaust confused the Stinger’s infra-red seeker which sent it astray. Foxbat one, Predator zero. 

In the end the little Predator, pretty much the slowest and lightest combat aircraft in the USAF’s inventory, was brought down by a massive MiG-25, the heaviest and fastest fighter in the Iraqi Air Force at the time.

Just like a classic gunfighter’s standoff, the guy that was able to shoot first lived to fight another day, just barely averting mutual destruction. Surely the Iraqi MiG-25 pilot must have been amazed when he saw what amounts to a seemingly defenseless, glorified radio controlled plane shoot back at his mach three-capable interceptor. Yet maybe what at face value seems like a loss for the USAF was in fact exactly the outcome they wanted as that was the last time Iraqi fighters ever pushed an intercept on an unmanned US drone.

And that my friends is how the future of unmanned air-to-air combat was born…"

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- A U.S. military search team discovers a MiG-25 Foxbat, the world's fastest fighter, buried beneath the sands in Iraq. Several MiG-25s and Su-25 ground attack jets have been found buried at al-Taqqadum airfield west of Baghdad. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. T. Collins

Stinger-laden Predators quickly fell out of fashion as the fleet rapidly expanded and became a centerpiece of the Global War on Terror and the controversial "targeted killing" drone assassination program. But over the last decade, American drones have been harassed repeatedly by the Iranians while on patrols over the Persian Gulf. The problem got so bad that F-22s were called in to send a message to roving Iranian tactical jet crews that leaving the unmanned aircraft alone while flying in international airspace was good for their health.

Fast forward to today and it's evident why giving the Reaper the ability to defend itself is attractive—even for deterrent reasons alone. Additionally, these aircraft have had the benefit of operating in largely benign environments since their introduction into service. Future operations may not be so convenient. 

An MQ-1B Predator, left, and an MQ-9 Reaper taxi to the runway in preparation for takeoff June 13, 2014, on Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The aircraft are assigned to the 432nd Wing, which trains pilots, sensor operators and other remotely piloted aircraft crewmembers, and conducts combat surveillance and attack operations worldwide. U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christian Clausen

The air war over Syria, where Reapers are often shadowed by Russian fighters, is a reminder how defenseless these assets are, and because of the limited situational awareness of their operators, it may not even be possible to confirm how one was brought down should such an event occur. This can be a huge problem, especially when one is operating on an essential mission. And in Syria, unmanned aircraft are usually the only coalition aircraft to penetrate into the western part of the country, where Russian forces are deeply entrenched. 

For the self defense role, the AIM-9X is a far more capable missile than the AIM-92 Stinger. It is capable of shorter beyond visual range engagements, has a wider field of view than its AIM-9L/M predecessor, uses a far superior imaging infrared seeker, and most importantly, it can engage targets far off the aircraft's centerline. The block II variant also features a data-link that enables lock on after launch capability. It can even engage ground and surface targets under certain circumstances. You can read much more about the AIM-9X and its capabilities here.

AIM-9X Sidewinder. USN

It may be possible to slave the AIM-9X's seeker to the Reaper's sensor turret, which itself may be able to be directed to targets in the MQ-9's operating environment that are pushed to it from third party platforms via an onboard Link 16 data-link terminal. That information could then be sent back to Reaper's operators via the aircraft's standard Ku band satellite communications link. Think of this as a virtual radar of sorts...

This would give the Reaper's operators much higher situational awareness and may allow the AIM-9X to target enemy aircraft at the very edge of its range...

If a new radar was added to the Reaper that had an air-to-air mode, the missile's seeker and the Reaper's turret could be pointed at targets it sees as well. 

Additionally, when upgraded with advanced threat sensing gear and software, including the possible fielding of radar warning receiver pods and rudimentary distributed aperture systems, MQ-9 crews could use the AIM-9X to better defend their aircraft than they could otherwise. Even drone sense and avoid technology being developed for civilian uses could be adapted to help the Reaper protect itself with its own missiles against airborne threats. 

A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper taxis down a runway in Afghanistan. The Reaper is designed to go after time-sensitive targets with persistence and precision, and destroy those targets. U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson

What I am getting at here is that the Reaper would not have to point its nose at the enemy in order to shoot at it. Basic fighter maneuvers (dogfighting) in a turbo-prop powered drone with long slender wings, where the pilot is operating on a slight time lag and looking through a 'soda-straw' isn't well-advised. But that is unlikely to be how the MQ-9 would employ such a weapon. 

Other potential options for self defense may be on the horizon as well, including miniaturized hit-to-kill defensive interceptors. Think of this type of system as an active close-in defense kinetic capability for aircraft. 

Still, the AIM-9X is readily available and it would give the MQ-9 a good defensive capability in murky, or semi-contested operational environments and when patrolling very close to hostile territory. The aircraft is not designed to survive over highly-contested airspace.

Not too long after this was written, it emerged that the MQ-9 had fired an AIM-9X and successfully shot down a target drone in a test in 2017. You can read all about this event here. Another test happened in 2020 that was part of a larger Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) 'onramp' set of trials. The MQ-9 shot down a BQM-167 target drone acting like a cruise missile using an AIM-9X Block II. You can read about this engagement here.

An MQ-9 toting an AIM-9X Block II prior to a test. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Haley Stevens

Today, a self-protection pod for the Reaper that provides electronic and expendable countermeasures, and spherical situational awareness of threats, exists. It was designed to counter ground-based air defenses primarily, but it may be possible to utilize it in conjunction with AIM-9X, at least for awareness purposes. In fact, concept art of the pod shows this exact configuration:

An artist's conception of an MQ-9 Reaper equipped with the self-defense pod and armed with an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, as well as other weapons and stores. GA-ASI

Modern data-links can also provide Reaper crews with additional situational awareness and potentially targeting data, as well, as discussed in the quote from our piece six years ago. This is especially relevant for employing the 'networked' AIM-9X Block II that supports third-party targeting and lock-on after-launch capability.

You can read our entire deep dive on the MQ-9's survivability in contested environments here.

At this time there is no indication of MQ-9s being armed with air-to-air missiles on operational missions, but it clearly would not be hard to do so. This capability would have to be deployed in an operational state and tactics and procedures would have to be built around it, along with training for the crews that operate the Reapers.

So yes, the Reaper can fight back in the air-to-air realm, but there needs to be a will to deploy such a capability and the rules of engagement need to be carefully planned around it.

At the very least, it would provide some deterrence to marauding fighters, but the aforementioned rules of engagement, at least under the current circumstances, would limit its utility as it is unlikely Reapers would be allowed to fire without being fired upon. This would be a different story in an openly hostile environment where kinetic engagements are expected against a fully declared adversary with deadly intent.

Regardless, I hope this answers the question of if one of these drones can be armed to protect itself.

The answer, quite remarkably, is now 20 years old.

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