The Reaper flew with eight live AGM-114 Hellfire missiles September 10 as part of what the service calls the drone’s “persistent attack” role. More weapons, coupled with longer-range, higher-fidelity sensors and improved fuel tanks naturally increases dwell time over enemy targets, an ability to re-task to new targets as intelligence emerges and of course put more effects on target when needed.
The added weapons are part of an Air Force software upgrade program called the MQ-9 Operational Flight Program 2409.
“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,” an Air Force report states.
The Reaper can still be armed with 500-pound bombs on any of the stations as well, so the platform will retain its attack flexibility, depending upon mission requirements.
The Reaper will now fire the AIM-9X in addition to the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, a 500-pound laser-guided weapon called the GBU-12 Paveway II, and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAMs. These are free-fall bombs engineered with a GPS and Inertial Navigation Systems guidance kit.
This added Hellfire attack possibility introduces several new tactical possibilities and, one could certainly observe, helps transition the platform into a modern warfare posture in an area of great power competition. Certainly in a large-scale mechanized warfare scenario, additional tank-killing Hellfire missile attack options could prove tactically useful.
During the last fifteen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Reaper operated with great success conducting precision-drone strikes against terrorists and other high-value targets.
Now the Air Force seems to be working toward further transitioning the combat-tested drone into preparations for great power warfare. This appears to be a sensible next step along an evolving trajectory for the drone through which the Air Force has consistently added new weapons and expanded mission scope for the aircraft.
The move to fire an AIM-9X is significant as well, given that it adds additional possibilities for major power warfare, such as air-to-air combat. Earlier this year, the MQ-9 Reaper successfully destroyed a drone cruise missile target with the well-known and highly effective AIM-9X precision air-to-air missile. The AIM-9X fires from the F-35 and F-22 stealth fighter jets and has in recent years been upgraded with improved precision-guidance technologies. Other upgrades also include “off boresight” targeting, enabling pilots to destroy enemy targets behind the aircraft. This is quite significant, as “off-boresight” technology can actually guide the AIM -9X to turn around and change course while in-flight using a pilot’s helmet-mounted cueing system. This massively expands the Reaper’s target envelope.
Engineering a Reaper for air-to-air combat missions does seem to represent a sensible and technically advanced evolution of the platform, greatly expanding its mission purview. Armed with an AIM-9X, a Reaper can perform new offensive or defensive operations by virtue of using the missile as an “interceptor” stopping approaching enemy cruise missiles or an offensive attack against enemy aircraft.
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.