The Air Force is arming its Reaper drone with new technologies to “counter” enemy countermeasures by enabling its sensors, electronics and weapons to sustain functionality even in the event that an enemy attempts to hack, “jam” or disrupt its systems.
It’s called a “hardened targeting pod,” a technology with what an Air Force report calls an “electro-optical counter-countermeasure.” While many of the technical parameters central to the technology were not mentioned in the Air Force report, likely for security reasons, it was identified as a system that gives the MQ-9 Reaper an ability to find and detect threats in order to thwart jamming attempts or enemy EW attacks.
The Reaper technology, identified as the Reaper Defense Electronic Support System (RDESS), is described as having successfully tested an anti-jam, anti-spoofing application which can utilize new aircraft antennas to make essential assessments. The Air Force report also said the new RDESS supports DoD’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, something which could suggest the new target hardening pod draws upon AI-enabled computer technology. It would not be at all surprising if AI-enable algorithms were used to help discern, organize and even deconflict parts of the spectrum to ascertain where the threats are and, if needed, recommend adjustments to protect against jamming.
One of the ways the Air Force is countering enemy countermeasures is by engineering RF technologies capable of frequency hopping for weapons guidance systems. For example, should an enemy EW attack seek to jam the RF or infrared targeting guidance on an air-to-air weapon, targeting adaptations can switch or “hop” from one frequency to another to ensure continued guidance functionality. The Reaper has even been armed with AIM-9X air-to-air weapons, a development which allows for a greater range of air warfare engagement possibilities.
This kind of anti-jamming technology, which was demonstrated at the Air Force’s recent Northern Edge wargame in Alaska, could be extremely significant to a platform such as the Reaper, which the Air Force continues to transition into a great power warfare environment. The Air Force has given the Reaper new fuel tanks, weapons, sensing technology and now, “target pod hardening” to enable the armed platform to add value to an air war effort against an extremely sophisticated adversary with advanced technologies.
The new “hardending pod” can, along with other technical adaptations, enable the Air Force with the ability to improve survivability for the Reaper, a larger, less stealthy platform. The conceptual effort intended to make the Reaper survivably in a great power war also involves tactical adaptations, according to Air Force Europe Commander Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian who told The Mitchell Institute that Reaper flight paths can become more varied and less “predictable” to an enemy, as a way to diminish the possibility of being shot down.
Reaper Until 2035
These upgrades are all part of a massive Air Force effort to expand the mission scope for its Reaper drone, integrating a host of new upgrades and adding weapons as part of a broader plan to fly the drone to 2035 and beyond.
The Reaper upgrades are multifaceted, according to an Air Force report, which says the primary aim is to transition the drone into multi-domain operations. The modifications include the integration of new infrared sensing technology and information assurance systems which may involve various kinds of hardening or data protection systems. Such an upgrade might further preclude the Reaper’s sensor feeds from being disrupted, jammed or hacked by an adversary or hostile force looking to derail drone missions. The technical specifics of how Reaper data networks are being hardened were not made available in the Air Force report, likely for security reasons, yet an ability to avoid being jammed could introduce a breakthrough level of functionality and mission reliability for the drone as it transitions from years of counterinsurgency into preparations for major great power warfare in environment where adversaries are armed with advanced air defenses and air platforms in position to challenge a Reaper.
These threat circumstances may be one key reason why the Air Force has now armed the Reaper for the first time with an AIM-9X high-tech air-to-air strike missile. The AIM-9X, which also fires from the F-35, uses advanced guidance technology to adjust to and destroy enemy target.
On the F-35, for example, the AIM-9X can operate in what is called “off-boresight” mode, meaning it can adjust course in flight to attack a target to the side or behind the aircraft. Being fired “off-boresight” means the AIM-9X would not be limited to only attacking targets in a linear, straight ahead trajectory. It is not clear if an AIM-9X can fire “off boresight” on a Reaper, yet it does give the drone a first-of-its-kind air-to-air attack possibility. This adaptation could be particularly impactful for the Reaper due to its increasingly long-range, high-resolution sensors which could position the drone to detect, and even potentially destroy, approaching enemy aircraft.
Interestingly, the Air Force report on the Reaper did say the drone is also getting weapons upgrades, an indication that newer weapons might be added to its already considerable weapons arsenal. The Reaper now fires the AIM-9X in addition to the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, a 500-pound laser-guided weapon called the GBU-12 Paveway II, and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAMs.
All of this, it is clear, is part of a deliberate Air Force effort to transition the combat-tested Reaper drone from years of counterterrorism and surveillance in an uncontested environment wherein it operated with air supremacy, into preparations for major high-threat warfare in scenarios where enemies will have fighter aircraft, advanced air defenses and its own armed drones potentially capable of air-to-air assault. Advanced enemies will also operate with sophisticated jamming technologies, EW and even cyber attack technologies, all circumstances potentially explaining why the Air Force continues to put much effort into upgrading and sustaining its combat service life.
The Reaper has a long history of having successful upgrades to include the addition of extra new fuel tanks and a universal weapons interface designed to create the technical infrastructure and IP protocol standards sufficient to accommodate a growing range of weapons.
The Air Force report also made a point to emphasize multi-domain operations as key to the future of the Reaper, comments which could have been a reference to the newest Reaper variant, a sub-hunting maritime drone called the SeaGuardian. Equipped with sonobuoy dispensers, advanced data processing and specially tailored maritime environment submarine hunting systems, the SeaGuardian Reaper variant is already operational and participating in large scale Navy tests. The advent of SeaGuardian not only introduces new mission paradigms for the drone when it comes to adding a maritime domain configuration but also greatly contributes to the Air Force’s effort to transition the Reaper into a major warfare asset ready for highly-contested, high-risk warfare against technologically sophisticated enemies.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor of 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.