The Air Force plans to begin divesting MQ-9 Reaper drones from its inventory, arguing they are not survivable in contested air space. Rather than divest, USAF could adapt the aircraft to a host of other missions. Senior Airman Wynndermere Shaw/ANG
Photo Caption & Credits

Reimagining the Reaper

The Air Force’s MQ-9 Reapers helped change the way we fight. They’re not done yet.

Faced with an inventory full of aging equipment, the Air Force is proposing to slash legacy aircraft it believes cannot survive in a high-end fight. The aim is to divert dollars needed to support these legacy platforms to modernization programs. While this approach has not succeeded in the past, leaders still feel it is the last card they have to play, given a cultural unwillingness to demand a greater share of the defense budget pie. 

Putting the debate over the wisdom of this approach aside, the recurring plans to prematurely divest the Air Force’s fleet of more than 280 combat-proven MQ-9 Reapers are especially concerning. These aircraft are far younger than most of their Combat Air Force counterparts, and their value remains highly relevant. This is the second time the Air Force has pushed this concept forward, but last year Congress pushed back. The reality is that the Air Force needs a range of capabilities and capacity. MQ-9s offer both. Pragmatically, they are also bought and paid for. Given that mission demand is not slated to decrease, the service should focus its attention on how to use existing capabilities in innovative, powerful new ways. Meanwhile, it should also look toward pointed upgrades that increase the value delivered by existing assets. 

To this point, rather than focus its efforts on MQ-9 divestiture, the Air Force should instead invest in their survivability, the resiliency of their command and control systems, and enhance their autonomy and advanced sensing capability. Doing so is in keeping with Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s vision. Adapting faster does not obviate the need to adopt smarter, more cost-effective ways to maintain strong deterrence and to fight effectively in future conflicts. Mission demand paired with limited budget resources means doing more with the capabilities the service has on hand. With modest investment, the $12 billion MQ-9 Reaper enterprise can expand far beyond its current mission portfolio. 

Unique Role Continues

The Air Force strategy to cut legacy aircraft today to help fund new programs reduces capacity that remains in high demand. The service is accepting increased risk in the intermediate term on the bet that it can transform the overall force in the long term. The problem with this approach is that the service fundamentally doesn’t control mission demand—that card lies with the adversaries. And at present, despite what’s convenient on a budget spreadsheet, mission demand for a wide range of missions at the low- and mid-tier level is not falling. That is why Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, and Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command, are among the most concerned about how a shrinking Reaper force threatens their ability to prevent insurgents and terrorists from expanding influence across multiple regions. It’s about putting out the proverbial brush fires before they become major conflagrations. The rapid rise of ISIS stands as “Exhibit A” in this regard. Even today, there are too few Reapers to support surging operational requirements.

Importantly, these requirements are unlikely to decline following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Long-endurance platforms executing over-the-horizon ISR will be critical to keeping tabs on terrorist groups and their activities in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The MQ-9 is the only platform that can deliver both persistent ISR and, when necessary, strike at no risk to aircrews. The Reaper boasts the lowest cost-per-flying-hour of any high-end combat aircraft.

Stealthy Alternatives

While the Air Force has dabbled with thoughts of a stealthy Reaper replacement that could operate in contested threat environments, its actual commitment is unclear. The Air Force published a Request for Information (RFI) seeking insight from industry for a future Next-Generation Multi-Role Unmanned Aerial System Family-of-Systems. The aim appears to be to absorb the MQ-9’s functionality into a broader concept that includes an MQ-Next. But an RFI falls well short of a plan or a program. Recent statements by service officials suggest there is no present funding behind this effort, and a path forward remains unclear. Oversight entities are concerned regarding this muddled vision, with a 2021 House Committee on Appropriations report calling the Air Force’s decision to end Reaper production premature. That is a major reason why they rejected retirement plans, noting that USAF investment in a replacement aircraft was lacking. 

Indeed, funding a Reaper replacement in the near-term seems unlikely; the Air Force is already struggling to find funding for big-ticket modernization programs like the B-21 bomber, KC-46 tanker, F-35 fighter, T-7 jet trainer, a UH-1 replacement, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), the Advanced Battle Management Systems (ABMS), and a Next-Generation Air Dominance family-of-systems. 

With the acquisition plate overflowing and money running thin, killing Reaper without a replacement poses imprudent risk. Not only do these aircraft execute traditional missions against adversaries like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban, but they also can meet important mission demands further up the threat ladder. While it’s true that an MQ-9 will not survive over downtown Beijing amid the most advanced air defense systems, that cannot be the ultimate arbiter regarding what is in the Air Force inventory or not. The reality is that there are a range of demands, and types like the MQ-9  can execute certain missions and take on more risk to free up our most capable assets, like the F-22, F-35, B-2, and B-21, so they can focus their efforts where they will count the most. Burning down hours on these airframes—of which the Air Force has far too few—simply does not make sense. The service already owns aircraft more affordable to fly and replace that can meet mission demand. 

Added to this, the service can also explore how to increase the MQ-9’s survivability so that it can meet an ever-broader swath of demand. As Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall stated during confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee in May 2021, “We have made a big investment in that platform [MQ-9], and it would be a shame to not be able to utilize it against more sophisticated threats.”

Agile Combat Employment is well suited to the Reaper’s Automatic Takeoff and Landing Capability, which enables operators to fly the drones from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., while deploying only skeleton ground crews to service them in theater. Staff Sgt. Omari Bernard

Case in Point 

To those who say retaining MQ-9 is unaffordable, it’s important to assess the cost of Plan b. To this point, the Air Force recently procured a half-billion-dollar fleet of E-11 manned business jets to carry a communications package that relays data between airborne platforms that cannot normally share information. While this was a less expensive approach than designing a military-unique aircraft, MQ-9 Reapers already in the inventory could do this mission at a substantially lower cost, provide higher mission capable rates, and stay on station multiple times longer to provide greater persistence than the business jets. Using unmanned systems would also free up a squadron of jet pilots, easing the Air Force’s chronic pilot shortage, which has remained stubbornly around 2,000 for several years. Reapers flying this communication mission would also not engage the ISR and strike operators needed for typical ISR missions. Rather, the aircraft’s technical maturity would allow for more autonomous operations, with a single ground station and operator controlling multiple aircraft. This offers a key advantage: commanders could accept more risk in forward areas when tensions escalate because pushing a Reaper forward would not put a pilot or other Airmen at risk. 

Former Air Force Assistant Secretary of Acquisition Will Roper said that the more an MQ-Next can take on, the “less we’re having to spend for those missions [that are] otherwise generating an asset bill for the Air Force.” Although Roper’s logic was sound, it applies just as much to the MQ-9 today as it did for MQ-Next. A modest additional investment can ensure the MQ-9 remains a viable, multi-mission platform for the next two to three decades. Programs involving the Air National Guard, Air Combat Command, and Air Force Special Operations Command have already opened the horizon for new uses of the Reaper.

Long-endurance drones like the Reaper could be adapted to carry air-to-air interceptors or directed energy weapons to counter air and missile threats to remote U.S. bases. Unmanned MQ-9s could perform this mission at a fraction of the cost of manned fighter aircraft. Airman 1st Class William Rio Rosado

Wide-Area Surveillance 

The E-11 example is not the only area where an MQ-9 could provide better mission effect at lower cost. The Reaper can also add value in the wide-area surveillance mission. Both Russia and China have been expanding their dominance over the “gray zone” adjacent to their territory, which they wish to control. Their approach exploits the time and distance U.S. forces face when operating far from U.S. territory. AFA’s Mitchell Institute’s Mark Gunzinger and Lukas Autenried highlight this fait accompli approach in a recent report, explaining: It results in “an escalation dilemma that effectively coerces the United States and its allies into accepting the new status quo.”

Early warnings and indicators, therefore, are critical to stopping such an action before it can start. They are a vital component to executing effective deterrence measures and contribute tremendously when juggling complex scenarios, where rolling back hostile action could risk all-out war. Just look at what Russia has done in Crimea, and China in the South China Sea. The United States and its allies are fundamentally opposed to these unilateral territory grabs, but are they willing to go to war over them? Thus far, the answer is no. We need to present policy officials with a better set of options, and early warning is a clear part of that solution path. 

To this point, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in 2020 proposed a concept called deterrence by detection, which asserts that influencing an adversary’s decision calculus “will require an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) network composed of systems that are cost-effective, persistent, and interoperable with a broad array of allies and partners.” This will require capabilities that can conduct long-duration surveillance operations, rather than predictable episodic monitoring that adversaries can react to in order to mask their actions. As already established, long-endurance unmanned aircraft such as MQ-9 Reapers that could host payloads of upgraded active and passive sensor technology to provide wide-area ISR data are ideal for this mission. 

Air and Missile Defense

Defending forward bases is also another area where MQ-9s could add distinct value. The spectacular performance of American airpower during Operation Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo, and the opening phases of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom drew notice from potential adversaries around the world. As future Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James A. Winnefeld asserted in a 1994 RAND research brief, “Airpower had demonstrated most convincingly that—skillfully employed under the right conditions—it can neutralize, if not completely destroy, a modern army in the field.” 

From 1990 forward, China and Russia both developed capabilities and warfighting strategies designed to blunt the U.S. Air Force’s ability to surveil, hold at risk, or destroy targets globally. A huge component of this centered upon attacking U.S. and allied bases throughout the Indo-Pacific region. 

Responding to this threat demands a new layered and integrated approach to base and area missile defense. The MQ-9 could become a key component in this regard, given that it already has sufficient payload capacity, space, and power to integrate advanced AESA radars and other electronic systems. Long-endurance RPAs [remotely piloted aircraft] can also carry kinetic air-to-air interceptors and directed energy systems capable of destroying multiple air and missile threats launched at the U.S. military’s forward bases and forces. New operating concepts and capabilities that harness the capability advantages of RPAs—including the Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper force—are needed to ensure these bases will survive an enemy’s first blow to generate war-winning combat power. Importantly, the MQ-9 can take on this new use more effectively and at a fraction of the cost of manned aircraft. 

To those who question the cost of such an investment, it’s important to ask the inverse: what’s the cost of failing to do this? A force destroyed on the ground in fast order would cede immediate victory to the opponent, especially given that the United States divested the majority of its attrition and lost forces following the Cold War as a budget efficiency measure. 

Maritime and Littoral Operations

A U.S. joint force exercise in September 2020 offered a glimpse into a likely future scenario for remotely piloted aircraft in the realm of maritime operations. During exercise Agile Reaper at Naval Air Station Point Magu, Calif., three MQ-9 Reapers from the Air Force’s 29th Attack Squadron identified targets, conducted mock airstrikes, and provided a common operating picture for air and maritime forces. In this execution, they also covered vast swaths of territory flying hundreds of miles an hour, not 20 knots as would a vessel at sea. Working collaboratively with Navy Third Fleet and Marine Corps personnel, the Airmen taking part in Agile Reaper demonstrated how the Reaper could contribute to maritime domain awareness. Netting an effect at sea does not mean having to operate on the sea. In a conference with journalists after the exercise, Lt. Col. Brian Davis, commander of the 29th Attack Squadron, highlighted the strategic benefits of the project. “We’ve only scratched the surface of the MQ-9’s capability,” he said. “We are transitioning to an ability to generate combat airpower anywhere, to include the maritime domain, and we are tactically quite good at it.”

Exercise Agile Reaper also demonstrated the Air Force’s ability to rapidly deploy MQ-9s to austere locations in a maritime setting. Technological enhancements could further reduce the deployed manpower needed to operate the Reaper, enabling operations from a more dispersed, small-footprint basing posture. 

Communications Relays

In a mission similar to the E-11 one earlier cited, RPAs can also offer mission value when it comes to facilitating line of sight (LOS) communications—operations that can pose a significant challenge in mountainous terrain. The lack of real-time line-of-sight communications hinders commanders’ ability to communicate and direct their forces. The problem only gets worse when incompatible communications systems are involved or where satellite communication is either inaccessible or denied by an enemy. 

RPAs could be adapted into sophisticated communications nodes, expanding networks’ reach at the edges of the battlespace and acting as waveform translators.

Arctic Domain Awareness

Major Tiffany (last name withheld for security reasons), 29th Attack Squadron assistant director of operations, recovers a MQ-9 Reaper during Exercise Agile Reaper April 21, 2021, on San Clemente Island, Calif. Exercise Agile Reaper operations began at Point Mugu Naval Air Station, Calif., where MQ-9s rapidly deployed to San Clemente Island, testing the agility of the MQ-9’s capabilities. Senior Airman Kristin Weathersby

While MQ-9s are best known for operating in the Middle East and Central Asia, they also offer distinct value in the Arctic, where the rise in temperatures over the past decade has increased competition among Russia, China, and the United States for trade routes, natural resources, and military access. Equipped with extremely minimal assets capable of operating in Arctic conditions, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have few ways of detecting potential threats in the polar regions. On top of this, crews on these vessels are generally fighting to survive amid the brutally harsh conditions. This limits the attention they can spend focused on the mission. It also limits the speed and reach of their operations. 

In a September 2020 lecture, former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft described the nation’s “significant domain awareness challenges … in the high latitudes.” He recounted one incident in which a Coast Guard cutter on patrol discovered a joint Russian and Chinese exercise near Kamchatka that was taking place without any awareness among the U.S. Intelligence Community. 

By harnessing the attributes of speed, reach, endurance, and range, the Reaper could be an attractive option for improving Arctic domain awareness. It comes down to surveying thousands of miles in a few hours without putting a human crew at risk. Real-time data links afford instant situational awareness. In 2016, General Atomics tested an extended-wing Reaper that increased loiter time from 27 to more than 40 hours. Redirecting and adapting some Reaper capacity for this new use would fill a serious gap in U.S. domain awareness in the Arctic. Increased awareness yields better options for policy leaders and reduces the risk of surprise. 

Defense Against Cruise Missiles

As with air base defense, RPAs can also help defend the homeland from missile attacks. In March 2021, Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck noted that Russia can now launch very-long-range cruise missiles from their own airspace to strike targets in the U.S. homeland. That will pose a significant challenge to U.S. missile attack warning systems. He noted that, without the ability to detect cruise missile attacks before or at the point of launch, the chances of stopping an attack are greatly reduced. 

MQ-9s, however, could offer a radically new approach to air defense. The Ghost Reaper initiative defines a new operating concept to conduct wide-area surveillance, process information as it’s collected, and provide early warning of potential cruise missile attacks. This concept would leverage technologies and concepts within JADC2 and ABMS and accelerate their transition to address a requirement that is critical to the defense of the U.S. homeland. During periods of heightened tensions, a web of RPAs could extend air domain awareness into the Arctic to give U.S. commanders more time to make decisions than relying solely on end-game missile defenses. It would also provide an airborne capability that adds resiliency to the current architecture of fixed radar sites that are more vulnerable to being suppressed or destroyed by attacks. Ghost Reapers could also perform the battle manager role when teamed with Air National Guard fighter interceptors and could be armed with its own air-to-air interceptors, bringing additional firepower to the mix. Finally, Ghost Reapers could do all this at a fraction of the cost of manned aircraft.   

DeDefense Support of Civil Authorities

Some 14 Air National Guard units in 11 states conduct MQ-9 Reaper operations, contributing to operational RPA missions overseas, as well as supporting domestic civil agencies with emergency response. The adaptability of the Reaper means the Air Force and the Air National Guard can further expand the ways it can be used to detect and mitigate the effects of natural disasters and other manifestations of the changing climate.

Recommendations

Before the Air Force is allowed to cut short MQ-9 production and plan for the retirement of these aircraft, it must explore the potential to use it in new and innovative ways well into the future:

1. DOD should fund the integration of a self-protection capability on the MQ-9 so it can operate in contested environments. Despite millions of hours of combat operations, the Air Force has not integrated awareness/protective capabilities on the MQ-9A, such as those found on other fourth-generation combat aircraft. Survivability solutions are readily available with self-protection pods that provide MQ-9As survivability against infrared and radio frequency guided threats in contested environments. 

2. Congress should direct DOD to conduct a study on new uses for MQ-9 Reapers. DOD should analyze the potential to use MQ-9 Reapers through 2040 in new ways that can help fill critical gaps in capability and capacity. 

3. Conduct a cost-per-effect assessment. Congress should direct a cost-per-effect assessment of the MQ-9 Reaper that looks at both current missions and proposed new uses through 2040, comparing those costs to other weapons systems competing for the same work.  

4. Expand the Air National Guard Ghost Reaper Program. The Air Force should expand the Ghost Reaper initiative to accelerate the fielding of JADC2-associated capabilities.  

5. USNORTHCOM and NORAD should assess the viability of using an airborne network of RPAs to improve detection and engagement of Russian cruise missile attacks. A strategic imperative exists to solve critical gaps in homeland cruise missile defense. An advanced network of RPAs may be a near-term alternative that is both effective and affordable.

6. Protect the Air Force’s RPA community. Airmen, civil employees, contractors, and others in the MQ-9 Reaper community are ideally suited to help the Air Force migrate toward its planned future force of semi-autonomous and autonomous unmanned systems empowered by artificial intelligence and capable of teaming with manned aircraft. The history of RPAs is one of continuous innovation, and the Airmen who successfully made those innovations are extraordinarily valuable. There is no better argument for continued investment in the MQ-9 than the value of its warfighters. Congress should direct the Air Force to formulate a long-term personnel resource plan to cultivate and protect the Air Force RPA community from being undermined by aircraft modernization and short-term budget choices.

Conclusion

Not all weapons systems seen as vulnerable in contested airspace are truly obsolete. The Air Force’s own history shows how remarkably adept Airmen are at using existing capabilities in new ways. Killing the MQ-9 Reaper without exploiting its potential for new uses would be a blow to America’s airpower advantage. 

In remarks to the Air Force’s 2019 RPA squadron of the year presentation, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Lt. Gen. Joseph T. Guastella asserted that the MQ-9 Reaper changed the character of warfare. Now it is time for the Reaper community to elevate their game for peer-on-peer competition. In this era of heightened threats, and facing the reality of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, the Air Force’s RPA enterprise is hardly a legacy force. It is more relevant today than ever before.