At the top of the decision tree in a combined counterterrorism air campaign sits the question of targeting authority. What type of strikes will each country approve? Will they stick to personality strikes only (targeting a known individual) or open the aperture to signature strikes (targeting individuals who exhibit preapproved types of behavior or patterns)? Will intelligence from one country be considered reliable enough for the other country to conduct a strike? Outside the strike authority realm, combined RPA operations will demand decisions unique to the unmanned world. For example, who owns security and distribution of the data links used to fly the aircraft? How does weapon allocation work? (Hellfire missiles are constantly in short supply.) Can the United States launch a French MQ-9 and then hand it off to the French to conduct a mission to save on manpower and ramp space for Ground Control Stations? None of these questions prevent the United States or France from successfully integrating operations in a combined counterterrorism campaign. They do, however, require careful consideration of some unique aspects of combined MQ-9 operations.
Ultimately, the French decision to arm its MQ-9s represents a monumental step in strengthening their efforts to disrupt terrorism in the Sahel. Having a single aircraft acting as a sensor-shooter will fundamentally change France’s ability to attack terror networks. It also begins to open the door for reducing the American burden in combating global violent extremists. Expectations should be kept in check however, as the United States has over 340 armed MQ-9s while the U.K (ten) and soon France (six) have a fraction of that capacity. As America’s close allies continue along the path of armed unmanned operations our Airmen have established, it has and will continue to remain in our nation’s best interests to keep pushing the envelope all the while ensuring we take advantage of every opportunity to build capacity and strengthen relationships with others who venture down that same path.
Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret.) is the Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Arlington, Virginia, and a Senior Military Scholar at the U.S. Air Force Academy. As the Air Force’s first chief of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) from 2006 to 2010 he orchestrated the largest increase in drone operations in Air Force history.
Maj. John Duray is a senior pilot with extensive experience in special operations and drone operations. He has over 3,200 hours (2,345 combat or combat support hours) in the MQ-9, U-28, PC-12, C-208 and T-38 aircraft.