The Reaper is set to gain new capabilities just as its iconic progenitor is pulled from service, but arming drones with air-to-air missiles isn't new.
Courtesy Photo—U.S. Air Force
The Reaper has come for the USAF's long-serving MQ-1 Predator drone fleet, literally. Today, March 9th, 2018, the flying service will officially retire Predator, a platform that ushered in a new era of unmanned air warfare—most notably the ability to rain down precision death as its controllers sat halfway around the globe in dark trailers. The decision to pull the Predator fleet is a previously preempted and controversial one, but its legacy is secured in the form of its super-sized cousin, the MQ-9 Reaper, an aircraft that will become the backbone of USAF drone operations. And with its elevated importance within the USAF's inventory, the Reaper is going to gain new capabilities and an expanded mission set, including the ability to fire air-to-air missiles.
You can read all about how the Predator went from a useful surveillance tool to an airborne assassin and the divisive star of the Global War on Terror in this past article of mine. But Predator won't totally disappear as it serves in other roles globally and surplus USAF airframes, of which there are many, will end up in the Navy's hands, and likely under the control of contractors here at home and in the fleets of friendly allies' air arms as well.
Just as the MQ-1 leaves the USAF's active inventory, the MQ-9 is getting a series of upgrades that will add new elements to its already diverse capabilities list. Presently the Reaper is used for surveillance or strike missions, and the USAF is trying to blend these two mission sets more smoothly together. The latest variant of the MQ-9 can fly upwards of 40 hours when not carrying weapons.
The Reaper's hardpoints give it the ability to carry a mix of AGM-114 Hellfire, GBU-12 Paveway, and now GBU-38 JDAM munitions. In contrast, its forbearer, the Predator, can only carry two Hellfires. Typically a Reaper's external payload totals no more than about 2,500lbs on a strike mission, but that enables the Reaper to carry four Hellfire missiles and a pair of harder-hitting 500lb Paveways or JDAMs. In the future, guided micro-munitions will give Reapers a deeper and more flexible magazine.
A variety of surveillance, fuel, communications relay, and electronic warfare pods, including Wide Area Aerial Surveillance (WAAS) camera arrays can and are carried on the Reaper's pylons. These systems are supplemental to the drone's nose-mounted MTS-B multi-spectral surveillance and targeting turret and its fuselage mounted Lynx synthetic aperture radar. A ventral hardpoint allows for larger radar systems to be mounted in a semi-permanent enclosure.
The USAF is eyeing putting more powerful radar systems onboard some Reapers in an attempt to help build-out a 'system of systems' of ground moving targeting identification (GMTI) sensor nodes that can be distributed around the battlefield. This is part of the overall effort to replace E-8C JSTARS planes in a decentralized manner and to increase resiliency and capability for the critical GMTI mission set. GMTI is a radar capability that tracks moving targets on the ground over time using radar. These systems have gotten more advanced and smaller in recent years, with some podded systems being able to track human movements and other small 'patterns of life' related data points.
The Reapers have the ability to field a more capable radar via the addition of an underwing pod or by activating their ventral hardpoint. The latter of which has been done for maritime patrol optimized variants of the Reaper commonly referred to as "Guardian."
Back to the future with unmanned air-to-air
In addition to a possible radar upgrade option, the Reaper is also going to get the ability to employ air-to-air missiles. This is truly a 'back to the future' moment in that the Predator was outfitted to carry AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missiles under an urgent development initiative led by the USAF's Big Safari office 16 years ago. Air Force Magazine recounts the lightning fast initiative and its wild outcome:
"Some Predators were armed with the AIM-92 Stinger missile, to defend themselves against Iraqi fighters. Getting the Stinger certified on the Predator took only 91 days.
On Dec. 23, 2002—less than three months before Operation Iraqi Freedom began—a Stinger-armed Predator was performing reconnaissance over a no-fly zone when an Iraqi MiG-25 turned in to attack. The Predator fired at the MiG-25, and the TV imagery showed the smoke trails of the two missiles crossing in midair. Unfortunately, the MiG’s missile downed the Predator, but the Iraqi Air Force apparently drew the conclusion the US would have wanted them to: that there was no future in combating Stinger-armed Predators. There were no further attacks against the UAVs."
I wrote a bit more detailed account based on information I had heard back in 2012:
"By 2002 the saber-rattling between the Bush Administration and Saddam’s gang of war criminals and military puppets (who can every forget goons like “Baghdad Bob,” Tariq Aziz, and “Chemical” Ali?) had reached a thundering crescendo. IAEA inspectors were frustrated, the US had assets literally pouring into the region, and the long-established no fly zones were still firmly in place over northern and southern Iraq.
As tensions increased Saddam’s forces became more emblazoned and defiant towards coalition aerial patrols. It just seemed crystal clear that war was on its way no-matter what really happened. At the same time, America was continuing to realize the true value of the General Atomics Q-1 series of unmanned aircraft. At the time, less than a decade ago, the USAF only had a small inventory Predators, less than two-dozen to be mores specific, compared with today where well over 200 Q-1 and Q-9 series of unmanned aircraft fly for the USAF.
From what I have heard about this unique footnote in military aviation history is that it was somewhat common that MiG-25 Foxbats would make slashing incursions across the no fly zone boundaries, especially when US unmanned aircraft were operating in the areas and when coalition AWACs coverage was offline. The US recognized the increase in Iraqi brazenness and devised a plan to first bait and subsequently deter Iraqi aggression towards unmanned aerial vehicles.
At first the Predators would bait the Iraqi fighters to violate the no fly zone boundary and then they would run. Over time a cat and mouse game ensued, until one day the Predator did not run. Instead it made an intercept course for the fast-flying MiG-25. This is where the video posted below comes into play, you see these were no normal RQ-1 Predators, they were in fact armed with a pair of AIM-92 heat-seeking “Stinger” missiles.
The MiG-25 is thought to have fired a medium range AA-6 “Acrid” air-to-air missile at a relatively close distance from the diminutive Predator, although still at a long enough distance that the Predator’s AIM-92’s could not lock onto the massive MiG’s heat signature. Thus the Predator fired its missile while the Iraqi’s shot was well on its way. The Iraqi MiG-25 Foxbat missile’s hot exhaust confused the Stinger’s infra-red seeker which sent it astray. Foxbat one, Predator zero.
In the end the little Predator, pretty much the slowest and lightest combat aircraft in the USAF’s inventory, was brought down by a massive MiG-25, the heaviest and fastest fighter in the Iraqi Air Force at the time.
Just like a classic gunfighter’s standoff, the guy that was able to shoot first lived to fight another day, just barely averting mutual destruction. Surely the Iraqi MiG-25 pilot must have been amazed when he saw what amounts to a seemingly defenseless, glorified radio controlled plane shoot back at his mach three capable interceptor. Yet maybe what at face value seems like a loss for the USAF was in fact exactly the outcome they wanted as that was the last time Iraqi fighters ever pushed an intercept on an unmanned US drone.
And that my friends is how the future of unmanned air-to-air combat was born…"
Stinger-laden Predators quickly fell out of fashion as the fleet rapidly expanded and became a centerpiece of the Global War on Terror and the controversial "targeted killing" drone assassination program. But over the last decade, American drones have been harassed repeatedly by the Iranians while on patrols over the Persian Gulf. The problem got so bad that F-22s were called in to send a message to roving Iranian tactical jet crews that leaving the unmanned aircraft alone while flying in international airspace was good for their health.
Fast forward to today and it's evident why giving the Reaper the ability to defend itself is attractive—even for deterrent reasons alone. Additionally, these aircraft have had the benefit of operating in largely benign environments since their introduction into service. Future operations may not be so convenient.
The air war over Syria, where Reapers are often shadowed by Russian fighters, is a reminder how defenseless these assets are, and because of the limited situational awareness of their operators, it may not even be possible to confirm how one was brought down should such an event occur. This can be a huge problem, especially when one is operating on an essential mission. And in Syria, unmanned aircraft are usually the only coalition aircraft to penetrate into the western part of the country, where Russian forces are deeply entrenched.
An air-to-air arrow for the MQ-9's quiver
For the self defense role, the AIM-9X is a far more capable missile than the AIM-92 Stinger. It is capable of shorter beyond visual range engagements, has a wider field of view than its AIM-9L/M predecessor, uses a far superior imaging infrared seeker, and most importantly, it can engage targets far off the aircraft's centerline. The block II variant also features a data-link that enables lock on after launch capability. It can even engage ground and surface targets under certain circumstances. You can read much more about the AIM-9X and its capabilities here.
It may be possible to slave the AIM-9X's seeker to the Reaper's sensor turret, which itself may be able to be directed to targets in the MQ-9's operating environment that are pushed to it from third party platforms via an onboard Link 16 data-link terminal. That information could then be sent back to Reaper's operators via the aircraft's standard Ku band satellite communications link. Think of this as a virtual radar of sorts, and there are platforms that specifically support this kind of concept, namely the USAF's E-11 and EQ-4 BACN aircraft.
This would give the Reaper's operators much higher situational awareness and may allow the AIM-9X to target enemy aircraft at the very edge of its range. It would also allow its operators to obtain positive identification of potential enemies at long ranges prior to firing. If a new radar was added to the Reaper that had an air-to-air mode, the missile's seeker and the Reaper's turret could be pointed at targets it sees as well.
Additionally, when upgraded with advanced threat sensing gear and software, including the possible fielding of radar warning receiver pods and rudimentary distributed aperture systems, MQ-9 crews could use the AIM-9X to better defend their aircraft than they could otherwise. Even drone sense and avoid technologybeing developed for civilian uses could be adapted to help the Reaper protect itself with its own missiles against airborne threats.
What I am getting at here is that the Reaper would not have to point its nose at the enemy in order to shoot at it. Basic fighter maneuvers (dogfighting) in a turbo-prop powered drone with long slender wings, where the pilot is operating on a slight time lag and looking through a 'soda-straw' isn't well-advised. But that is unlikely to be how the MQ-9 would employ such a weapon.
Still, the AIM-9X is readily available and it would give the MQ-9 a good defensive capability in murky, or semi-contested operational environments and when patrolling very close to hostile territory. The aircraft is not designed to survive over highly-contested airspace.
Reaper As A Missile Truck
Another possibility is fitting MQ-9s with AIM-120 AMRAAMs to serve as forward-deployed air-to-air missiles platforms. This would allow a Reaper to set up a combat air patrol of sorts over a location, with operators using off-board sensor data to track and engage enemy targets.
This could be useful when setting up persistent deterrent patrols over key areas, such as forward operating bases in regions where air superiority is not assured. Compared to fighters, a loaded MQ-9 only needs gas roughly once a day instead of every hour, and when it fills up its tank the bill is way cheaper. Operational costs are also less than that of manned fighter assets. And once again, its high-magnification optical sensors could be useful in identifying targets at long distances before firing.
The threat from drones is drastically increasing as well as we have discussed for years. One recent scenario that comes to mind where such a concept could have been handy was the shoot down of two Iranian drones over a forward operating base used by U.S. and allied forces near At Tanf, Syria. A properly outfitted Reaper could even work as a stand-in for ground-based short-range air defense (SHORAD) systems, and even medium ones as well, not to mention taking the place of fighters. The U.S. military's SHORAD gap is well established, and efforts are finally moving in the direction of closing it. In the future, a Reaper with a solid-state laser could also work as a anti-small drone platform as well.
An MQ-9 could also be used to carry extra missiles into an area where fighters are present, with those fighters launching the MQ-9's missiles on demand remotely once their own magazines run dry. This is a concept we have talked about in great detail, but it's not as attractive an option for the MQ-9 as it's comparatively slow and it may have trouble surviving even on the rear edge of contested territory.
Just a peek at what's to come
The introduction of the AIM-9X or the AIM-120 into the Reaper's weapons portfolio is just an example of a radically altered unmanned aerial battlespace that is emerging on the horizon—at least publicly speaking. Although not popularly discussed, the air-to-air environment may be the unmanned aircraft's best mission of all as I have laid out in my previous special feature on the mysterious absence of high-end unmanned air combat vehicles:
For so long UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles—stealthy and advanced fighter sized drones) have been seen as strictly deep strike and surveillance platforms, but when networked together, they could offer an incredible counter-air capability.
Even the subsonic and less than highly maneuverable but very stealthy flying-wing UCAV configurations that we know of today could be absolutely devastating when it comes to sanitizing enemy airspace. The same swarm technology applies to the air-to-air realm as it does to attacking pop-up SAM sites. In fact, under certain circumstances enemy fighters may be an easier threat for UCAVs to deal with than those emanating from the ground.
Enemy aircraft would have a very hard time remaining undetected in airspace that an operational swarm of UCAVs is operating in. Its cloud-like mind will leverage feeds from the multitude of sensors carried by its individual UCAVs, all spread over a wide area. In essence, the swarm acts as is its own virtual AWACS, although in some cases it is far superior as it is forward deployed, can carry a diverse set of sensors spread over a wide area, and the data it collects can be enacted upon instantaneously.
If a potential enemy aircraft is detected, even just for a brief moment, multiple sensors aboard multiple UCAVs can instantly and seamlessly steer their sensors (radar, infrared etc) from multiple angles onto the single piece of sky where the aircraft was. Anti-stealth detection tactics can then be employed, aimed at collectively detecting an aircraft well enough to build a weapons-grade engagement track of it. Working as a team, the swarm can then engage the target in question.
Once a track is established, the best UCAV or UCAVs positioned to deal with it can be assigned the task of doing so, making long-range coordinated missile shots at the bad guy. Instead of using their own radars alone to guide their missile shots, they can use the swarm’s common “picture” to do so.
In other words, the UCAV firing on the enemy aircraft does not even have to use its own sensors to do so as it sees all the other UCAV’s sensor pictures fused together and can use that data instead. This means certain UCAVs, such as those closest to the threat aircraft, can operate “silent,” not emanating any electromagnetic energy. Combined with the UCAV’s wide-band stealthy shape, low infrared signature and radar-absorbent coatings, it is unlikely the target will detect the attacking UCAVs at all. Well at least until their missiles go “pitbull” and lock onto the aircraft during the terminal phase of their attacks, which is likely far too late.
Possessing an extreme level of stealth, both in the radio and infrared spectrum, and having near perfect situational awareness, the UCAV swarm is really a flying pack of telepathic robotic wolves that are all working together to kill the bad guy in a coordinated manner. Having a UCAV even sacrifice itself for the greater good can be programmed as a viable tactical choice.
When it comes to the within-visual-range air combat environment, the current types of UCAVs could never turn successfully with a modern fighter jet. Yet with the latest block of AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles, which are capable of making greater than 180 degree snap turns and locking onto an enemy aircraft after being launched from an internal weapons bay, the UCAV may not have to maneuver aggressively at all.
Then again, avoiding marauding fighters or attacking them with so called "non-kinetic" weaponry would also leverage the UCAV’s unique capabilities. Instead of launching missiles, parts of the swarm could jam and change course to keep themselves outside of the detection range of enemy aircraft. Or they could send pinpoint electronic attacks and pencil-sized high-power beams of electromagnetic energy chirped off by their onboard AESA radars directly at the enemy fighters' radars and radar-guided missile seekers, blinding, disabling, or destroying them in the process. Even the ability to swat incoming missiles out of the sky with directed energy weapons is clearly on the horizon.
Finally, a fully air-to-air optimized UCAV design may be the most awe-inspiring of all UCAVs as such an aircraft’s maneuverability would not be limited by the crushing gravitational forces a human pilot can endure. As such, a UCAV designed to absolutely rule the air-to-air realm could be able to sustain unheard of G forces, making shooting it down with missiles, or trying to parry it in the within-visual-range air combat realm, nearly useless.
Regardless of what's to come in regards to the future of air-to-air combat, the Reaper's evolution is accelerating after its first decade of service. Now that its game-changing progenitor—an icon of modern warfare—is bowing out of service, the MQ-9 will only become more trail-blazing in its own right.
With all this in mind it will be very interesting to see what else the USAF decides to do with its Reapers as it buzzes its way into a second decade of service.