A news report from the Chinese-government backed Global Times writes that China could “easily shoot down U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drones,” quoting Chinese military experts claiming knowledge of the aircraft’s recent training activities.
The Chinese paper makes reference to a U.S. “Exercise Agile Reaper” training event in which MQ-9s were practicing combat operations in the Pacific.
“The MQ-9 is not worth worrying about for China, because it does not possess stealth capabilities and flies at a low speed and low ceiling, which makes it an easy target for ground-to-air missiles,” the Global Times writes, quoting Chinese military experts.
To further substantiate its claims, the paper states “Iran shot down a U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk drone in 2019, a type of drone analysts said is technically more advanced than the MQ-9. The MQ-9 can only be deployed when facing smaller countries and regions with less developed armed forces that do not have adequate air defense capabilities.”
A drone like the Reaper is, of course, not intended to operate against advanced enemy air defenses, unless other aircraft and U.S. weapons have established air supremacy over a hostile area. However, should stealth bombers or fifth-generation stealth fighter jets succeed in establishing air superiority in any kind of major power conflict, the Reaper could have free reign.
These kinds of dynamics, nonetheless, likely inform the reasons why America is both engineering stealthy drones and taking specific measures to become less “predictable” with its drone operations, senior U.S. Air Force leaders say.
Along these lines, Air Force Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the commander of U.S. Forces Europe, told reporters earlier this year that senior U.S. military leaders are now amidst a decided effort to increase mission survivability for combat drones operating in high-risk areas. Responding to a question about an MQ-9 Reaper being shot down over Yemen last year, Harrigian emphasized that drone operations need to become less predictable to enemies.
“There is something to be said for operating in a manner that offers us an opportunity to not be as predictable as we have been. We’ve been too predictable, so we are working to facilitate tactics that allow us to be less predictable, which includes having an idea where the threat is and how to avoid it,” Harrigian said during a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies interview forum.
Being less predictable may involve a number of interesting tactics, such as varying routes or surveillance locations to confuse potential adversaries about which areas are of greatest interest. It could also mean changing altitude, dwell-time or mission frequency, as well. In addition, there are a host of possible methods through which drones might become more survivable, including stealth configurations, longer-range, higher fidelity sensors and weapons and, perhaps of greatest significance, network “hardening” against hacking attempts or various intrusions.
Kris Osborn is defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.