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Video Above: US Sends Drone Boats to Ukraine

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

The future of the Air Force’s medium altitude MQ-9 Reaper drone continues to generate substantial deliberation and debate among sensor weapons developers and members of Congress attempting to discern the optimal path forward for the platform given the changing threat environment.

The thrust of the debate centers around the question of survivability, meaning is the larger, non-stealthy Reaper viable and survivable enough to remain effective in high-end, contested environments where adversaries possess advanced air defenses and long-range sensors?

MQ-9 Reaper Drone

The Reaper has performed in a spectacular and impactful way for many years, particularly when it comes to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism missions. The Hellfire-armed Reaper drone has for years been effective in killing terrorists with precision strikes and maintaining that crucial “persistent stare” ISR capacity above high threat areas.

Reaper Drone Fires Missile

MQ-9 Reaper drone fires a missile

Addressing members of Congress during a House Appropriations Committee-Defense budget hearing, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Charles Brown spoke about having the right mix of capabilities as it relates to a needed balancing act between maintaining and upgrading the current fleet and keeping pace with new threats. 

Brown was clear that the Reaper will remain part of the inventory, explaining that there will still be critical role for the Reaper to play in permissive environments.

“The threat in the Middle East has been permissive, yet we will still need technology for less permissive environments,” Brown told lawmakers.

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At the same time, some lawmakers expressed concern that the Air Force has been cutting budget for the Reapers much too soon and in a way that compromises key capability of great value to the force.

“Africa is permissive, South America is permissive and most of the world is permissive,” Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif, Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee-Defense, told senior Air Force leaders.

Calvert's comments were part of his effort to raise the question as to weather the Air Force is prematurely decreasing its Reaper funding, given the continued need for its capabilities in large portions of the world.

Brown and Kendall were clear that Combatant Commanders did at the moment have enough Reapers and that the capability will remain in the force. At the same time, senior service leaders are also clear that weapons developers need to continue to prioritize new, more-survivable ISR platforms and technologies sufficient to operate successfully in “contested” environment such as places like the Pacific or Eastern Europe where Russian and Chinese air defenses make the Reaper more vulnerable.

There are several variables to this discussion regarding the utility and potential effectiveness of the Reaper, one of which relates to how the Air Force has integrated a universal weapons interface into the Reaper to massively expand its arsenal and attack capacities. 

U.S. Navy AIM-9M Sidewinder

AIM-9M Sidewinder

Modern Reapers can now fire the AIM-9X air-to-air missile as well as the AGM-114 Hellfire, 500-pound laser guided GBU-12 Paveway II and even GPS-guided air-dropped bombs such as the GBU-38. This clearly expands its mission envelope and the kinds of warfare scenarios in which it might be effective. Perhaps the Reaper, now armed with AIM-9X, could prove effective in some kinds of air-to-air engagements? Certainly seem feasible

Also, last year Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, Air Force Commander, Europe, explained that there were tactical adjustments which could be made to improve the survivability of the Reapers such as flying “less predictable” flight paths or operating at higher altitudes. Also, fast-advancing sensor technology in the realm of sensor ranges and image fidelity might enable the Reaper to successfully conduct ISR missions in high-threat areas at higher and therefore much safer altitudes.

These things considered, however, the Air Force seems quite accurate in placing a high priority on smaller, stealthier and well networked ISR technologies to ensure crucial missions can continue in extremely high-threat, contested environments. 

Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization