The USAF Expands MQ-9 Reaper Drone Force in Afghanistan to Its Largest Size Ever

The air war over Afghanistan is rapidly heating up and a huge deployment of Reapers drones is the latest major development.

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The U.S. Air Force says its force of MQ-9 Reapers at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan is now the largest deployment of the type to a single base ever. The drones are part of a larger surge in the air war over the country, which could still include yet more unmanned aircraft in the near future as other services, such as the U.S. Navy, consider their own unmanned contributions.

The Air Force says there are now nearly three squadrons worth of Reapers at Kandahar, though it declined to give specific numbers, according to a report by Stars and Stripes on Jan. 26, 2018. The size and scope of American presence there had steadily shrunk since the NATO-led coalition officially ended combat operations in 2014. It has begun to grow again as the United States has reinvigorated its efforts against the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other militant groups in the country, deploying additional ground forces, including elements of the U.S. Army’s first ever dedicated advisory unit, the 1st Security Forces Assistance Brigade, or 1st SFAB.

Those deployments have in turn prompted a need for more close air support and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft “to make sure that they can accomplish their mission successfully,” U.S. Air Force Major General James Hecker, who is charge of both U.S. and other coalition air forces in the country, told Stars and Stripes. In addition to the extra drones, the Air Force sent manned A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft and HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopters to Kandahar.

Having so many Reapers at the base will give the U.S. military and Afghan and coalition partners an impressive ability to monitor insurgents and terrorists along the country’s restive border with Pakistan. At least some of the MQ-9s there are the newer Block 5 version, which can carry an external fuel tank, allowing the drone to fly even further or remain in a specific area for a longer period of time.

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A Block 5 MQ-9 Reaper in Afghanistan with the external fuel tank for extended range.

As we at The War Zone have highlighted on numerous occasions in the past, persistent surveillance is essential for making sure the Taliban and other militants cannot move about the country with impunity, especially at night. The latter point is only increasingly more important as insurgents have begun to acquire night vision equipment and otherwise improve their ability to conduct operations after dark.

The Reapers in particular also provide a unique wide-area persistent surveillance capability with the Gorgon Stare system, which packs nearly 370 individual cameras that can simultaneously grab imagery across a 40-square mile zone. Analysts can then combine those images into a single mosaic map and look for significant changes or patterns of activity and track vehicles and personnel movements over large areas. Put that together with other sources of intelligence and it can offer a dramatically more nuanced view of the battlefield as a whole.

The Reapers can also carry precision guided bombs and missiles themselves, allowing them to engage any targets that they might find directly. This gives commanders a better chance of being able to attack fleeting time-sensitive targets, such as small groups of terrorists meeting together or planting improvised explosive devices, as well as just shortening the overall time it takes between locating the enemy and responding to the threat kinetically. 

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A Reaper in Afghanistan with the Gorgon Stare system.

“We’re going after the enemy, we’re going after the vehicles they use, we’re going after the buildings that they try to hide from us in,” U.S. Air Force Colonel Stephen “Joker” Jones, an Air Force officer who has been involved in unmanned aircraft operations in Afghanistan since 2000, told Stars and Stripes for its report. He added that he could put a Hellfire missile “right into somebody’s chest if I needed.”

Unfortunately, the MQ-9 can’t carry the Gorgon Stare pods and weapons at the same time, so having more Reapers in Kandahar gives U.S. commanders more flexibility in how they employ the drones. It also offers a way to increase American air power in the country relatively quickly and without the need for a large number of personnel on the ground. The Air Force uses the “remote-split” operating method for these unmanned aircraft, meaning that small teams on the ground launch, recover, and maintain them at Kandahar, but crews back in the United States actually fly the missions.

The Reaper force might only be the start of a larger U.S. drone mission in the country, both in size and scope, too. Colonel Jones told Stars and Stripes that while the MQ-9s were massed at Kandahar now, there was a possibility they could move to other established bases in other parts of the country as necessary.

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Airmen at Kandahar Airfield ready an MQ-9 for a mission in 2017.

The Air Force’s unmanned aircraft already share space at Kandahar with the Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagles, which offer their own persistent surveillance and light attack capabilities. The service used to fly their own smaller MQ-1 Predators from the base, but transitioned to the more capable Reapers as part of a service-wide effort to retire the older aircraft by the end of 2018.

But as The War Zone was first to report, the Predators might get a new lease on life with conventional or special operations units within the U.S. Navy or Marine Corps. U.S. special operators are heavily engaged in Afghanistan, especially against the ISIS franchise there, and could benefit from having an expanded, dedicated drone force of their own.

With the Predators, those elite units would have to rely less on conventional forces for air support, especially of the unmanned kind. If assigned to Naval Special Warfare or Marine Corps Special Operations Command elements, directly, they would not necessarily have to turn to Air Force and Army special operations units provide this capability, either. The Navy SEALs in particular have long been interested in acquiring their own manned light attack aircraft for exactly this reason.

Marine and Navy special operators do already drones, but these are generally smaller, tactical types, including the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle, Textron Aerosonde, and AeroVironment Puma AE. Special Operations Command has been working to give those unmanned aircraft new capabilities, as well.

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An MQ-27A ScanEagle drone on its catapult launcher.

In particular, the ScanEagle, now known to the U.S. military as the MQ-27A, has gained a signals intelligence capability, called "Peebles" or the "Peebles Payload." The small, catapult-launched drone still retains its electro-optical and infrared full-motion video cameras.

The Peebles’ exact capabilities are unclear, but its size and shape are reminiscent of systems that mimic cellphone towers, which are often referred to as “dirtboxes” after one manufacturer DRT. These systems allow the user to track the position of an individual from their phone signal and some versions can scoop up the actual audio from the call, as well as the associated metadata. 

Special operators are using a similar piece of equipment, called Silent Eagle, on their RQ-20A Puma AEs, and these systems are ideally suited to monitoring the movements of specific terrorists and militants ahead of a raid to capture them or a targeted strike. There is the possibility that the MQ-27A could gain a light attack capability, using miniaturized precision guided munitions, in the future, as well.

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A low-quality image of MQ-27A's payload bay, with a green arrow pointing to the Peebles system.

The War Zone was also the first to note that the Navy was separately considering hiring General Atomics, which makes the Reapers, to fly those drones itself over Afghanistan in support of Marines in Helmand Province. It is not clear whether the service is still interested in pursuing that plan or if the Air Force’s deployment of extra MQ-9s is in response to those demands.

If the Navy did pursue the contractor-operated arrangement it would only further increase the U.S. military’s unmanned aircraft capabilities in the region. Per existing rules and regulations, though, the private aviators would only be able to fly reconnaissance missions and not attack any targets themselves, though.

The U.S. military, as well as the intelligence community, almost certainly already has additional unmanned aircraft in and around Afghanistan that we don’t know about, too. On Jan. 24, 2018, Pakistani authorities accused the United States of launching a targeted drone strike within their borders, killing a commander with the Haqqani Network terrorist group, as well as a number of innocent civilians in a nearby refugee camp. The Pentagon subsequently denied it had flown any such mission, suggesting that another American agency, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, was responsible.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalist, which tracks confirmed and reported drone strikes in Afghanistan, as well as other countries, has already recorded a significant uptick in unmanned operations in the country since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017 over the previous year. This doesn’t necessarily account for unmanned aircraft flying traditional close air support missions, either. American air strikes and other combat support missions have increased across the board as the Trump Administration continues with its renewed push against the Taliban and other militants.

With the Air Force’s large Reaper force now situated in Kandahar, 2018 looks set to see even more unmanned activity already, and it could be the beginning of a larger drone component of the United States’ overall air war in the country.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com