The Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone will live to fight another day, or thousands of days, due to a clear service plan to employ the platform for at least the next fifteen years.
While this is unsurprising given the number of upgrades the Air Force has performed on the drone, yet there is ongoing speculation amid development of the service’s high-priority MQ-Next program, which seeks to deploy a new generation of warfare intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).
“We’re not procuring any more MQ-9s in FY22, but we’re also not looking to shutdown the production line. In fact, we have modernization efforts that are tied to the MQ-9 in the ‘22 budget,” Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget Maj. Gen. James Peccia told reporters, according to a Pentagon transcript.
Peccia said the service was allocating $200 million for continued upgrades and modifications to the MQ-9 Reaper fleet in the 2022 budget request.
Questions about the future of the MQ-9 Reaper speak to an interesting broader strategic issue being contemplated by the Air Force, regarding how to adapt larger high-altitude, long-endurance armed surveillance drones for high-end warfare against a technically sophisticated major power adversary. Can they be adapted? Certainly, numerous efforts with the MQ-9 Reaper have moved in this direction, to include the addition of new fuel tanks for added endurance and dwell time, a massive expansion in weapons capability to even include air-to-air weapons and a new generation of long-range, high-fidelity sensors.
“A lot of people are talking about the replacement for the MQ-9. The MQ-9 is going to be with us for a long time, at least another 15 years, perhaps longer. And so we're not looking to get rid of the MQ-9s by any means. And we certainly have a lot of time to figure out what we will do next in terms of ISR,” Peccia said.
These improvements to the MQ-9 Reaper are all considerable survivability enhancing upgrades which, when combined with tactical adjustments, could quite possibly make a Reaper extremely effective in high-end, heavily contested airspace. Newer, long-range precision weapons, coupled with high-fidelity sensors and artificial-intelligence-enabled data processing might give an upgraded Reaper the opportunity to attack at greater stand-off ranges and higher altitudes while networking with other attack platforms. Longer dwell time enabled by added fuel tanks extending mission endurance can help a networked MQ-9 Reaper find and pass along target coordinates to nearby fighter jets, drones or even ground forces.
Also, there are tactical methods of improving survivability for larger drones like the MQ-9 Reaper, such as varying routes, altitudes and other kinds of operations to ensure enemies are not able to develop a “track” on a MQ-9 Reaper or discern detectable patterns, Air Force Europe Commander Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace earlier this year.
The emphasis upon multi-domain networking for the MQ-9 Reaper could be seen as a bridge to the MQ-Next program, a yet-to-take shape future ISR platform or series of platforms intended to ensure high-speed, networked surveillance and targeting amid highly contested major warfare conditions. Much attention is placed upon smaller, stealthier platforms, which are likely to figure prominently, yet at the same time the MQ-Next vision, as explained by Peccia, may involve a host of interwoven platforms.
“What we are looking at is really a family of interconnected systems that we will use in the future. That could come from space. It could come from aircraft. It could come from non-traditional means. We're not looking specifically at a platform-for-platform replacement, rather, we're looking at technology that's available today to build a survivable ISR platform as we move forward to that 2030 time period,” Peccia said.
Kris Osborn is the 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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.