Glimpse Of The Future?: MC-130 Sets Up Forward Refueling Point For MQ-9 Reaper Drone

The ability to rush small detachments of unmanned aircraft to remote, forward locations could enable all new operational concepts.

USAF

The idea of the forward arming and refueling point, or FARP, where transport aircraft quickly set up a temporary site for other planes and helicopters to take on more fuel and reload, sometimes without even shutting down their engines, is hardly new. But the U.S. Air Force also uses the procedure to support unmanned aircraft, which allow it to be more flexible about how it deploys and employs drones and could open up additional operational possibilities in the future.

On Feb. 13, 2018, the 27th Special Operations Wing’s public affairs office posted a video online, seen below, that shows members of the unit using an MC-130J Commando II special operations transport to set up a FARP and refueling at least one MQ-9 Reaper drone at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. The Wing’s 9th Special Operations Squadron flies the Commando II, while its 33rd Special Operations Squadron operates Reapers.

Unfortunately, there is no description to go along with this particular clip, which public affairs personnel or other airmen filmed using a night vision camera, or audio. It’s not hard to understand what is going on, thankfully. 

The crew of the MC-130J lands as they would during any other FARP mission, special operations airmen quickly run out hoses as an MQ-9 taxis into position. The drone has a pair of Hellfire missiles, one under each wing, possibly captive training versions, and an external fuel tank fitted under its wings. 

A separate group of airmen then shuts the drone down and the refueling begins. The video does not show personnel loading or unloading any weapons.

The clip cuts out with the drone still sitting, engine off on the runway. We don’t know if it subsequently took off again as part of this particular exercise.

In its most basic form, a FARP is used to extend an aircraft's reach from one point to another, and potentially back again. It can also be used to increase an asset's time over a target area and up its sortie rate. Rearming is a whole other aspect that naturally goes along with the concept. But the tactic can be used creatively to achieve more dynamic and complex effects on the battlefield too. 

During typical operations, the Air Force flies Reapers using a "remote-split" method in which a team on the ground uses a line-of-sight radio link to launch and recover the drone, but pilots and sensor operations conduct the actual missions remotely via satellite. The ground crews are generally also responsible for refueling, loading weapons, and routine maintenance on the unmanned aircraft.

It’s a concept of operations that the Air Force has already used to rapidly deploy MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9s to remote forward locations. In 2013, the 3rd Special Operations Squadron, another unit assigned to the 27th, set up a drone surveillance operation with Predators in an undisclosed African country within three weeks.

USAF via FOIA

A view of the 3rd Special Operations Squadron's Camp Shughart, situated in an undisclosed African country, and one of its Predators there, as seen through the camera on another drone.

The Air Force could potentially shrink that weeks-long time frame down to days or even hours by combining remote-split and FARP operating concepts, especially if the drones are only going to be flying intelligence or reconnaissance missions where it wouldn’t be necessary to fly in additional precision guided munitions. The Air Force has shown that this is feasible with manned aircraft, including with advanced F-22 Raptor stealth fighters as part of another concept known as “Rapid Raptor.”

That involves a package that the service can fly into any suitable location, including known “bare bases” with appropriate runways, but no existing formal support facilities. With this support in place, a detachment of four F-22s can start flying combat missions from the site within 24 hours.

The initial arrangement required a C-17 Globemaster III airlifter, but the Air Force has now run separate experiments involving HC-130J Combat King II rescue aircraft and the 9th Special Operations Squadron's MC-130Js. It’s not hard to imagine a similar arrangement involving the Commando IIs and a small group of Reapers.

The video below shows an MC-130J Commando II from the 9th Special Operations Squadron training to conduct FARP operations with F-22 Raptors.

Since it would require fewer personnel and infrastructure on the ground to begin with, a “Rapid Reaper” force may actually be able to get going much faster. General Atomics, which makes the MQ-9, is in the process of developing a system that will allow personnel to launch and recover the drones via satellite, which would further reduce the total number of personnel who actually have to be at the forward location to support operations. 

The Reapers are much less fuel hungry than high performance fighter jets such as the F-22, meaning a finite number of C-130-type aircraft could be able to sustain their operations for longer periods of time. An F-22 carries 18,000lbs of fuel internally on a mission that will last roughly two hours. An MQ-9 carries 4,000lbs internally and it can fly on that for around a day with a weapons payload. So a single F-22 tank of gas can keep the Reaper flying for four and a half missions lasting the better part of a week. 

All of this could give U.S. units, especially special operations forces, new options when considering best how to respond on short-notice to crises or to an otherwise rapidly changing situation. Otherwise, these elements might be forced to wait for support from Reapers or similarly sized drones or manned multi-role combat aircraft operating from existing locations, potentially hundreds of miles away or even farther, at least during the opening stages of an operation. 

Those long transit times could significantly limit the ability for drones to provide important persistent surveillance over a given area, or at the very least it would require more resources to keep a drone overhead at any given time. This is referred to as an "orbit." 

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MQ-9

Smaller tactical drones, such as the MQ-27A ScanEagle and RQ-21 Blackjack, could offer a more immediate, but localized reconnaissance and surveillance capability, but at present they have no ability to actually attack any targets they might find and their sensor suites and range are much more limited compared to the MQ-9. A combination of close-by persistent surveillance and light attack capabilities could be a boon to special operators in remote areas removed from other immediate support, especially against enemies with armored vehicles or other heavy weapons. 

When Syrian militia and Russian contractors attacked American forces in Syria earlier in February 2018, F-22s and MQ-9s were the only aircraft overhead initially. However, one of the Reapers was notably able to destroy a T-72 tank that was threatening the lighter equipped U.S. personnel and their Kurdish partners.

With their already small logistical footprint and FARPs, the Reapers could also quickly move from one location to another to provide the best coverage. U.S. Special Operations Command knows how beneficial this kind of flexibility can be for fast moving operations, having employed a similar operational concept with a pair of heavily modified OV-10G+ Bronco manned light attack aircraft during a field test in Iraq in 2015.

The benefits of being able to use FARPs to rush MQ-9s into a particular theater of operations or to a distributed network of bases within a particular region could have impacts on larger, conventional operations, too. The Air Force was already motivated to pursue concepts such as Rapid Raptor in part due to the increasing vulnerability of large, forward air bases to potential near-peer opponents.

Spreading manned fighters and other combat aircraft around to multiple sites would make it harder for the enemy to halt their operations with only a limited number of stand-off strikes. Adding drones to the mix could allow the Air Force to operate from additional locations in a crisis without needing a significantly larger amount of personnel and other resources. This in turn could allow the U.S. military to conduct more distributed strikes, forcing opponents to spread resources thinly across a broader area in response, potentially disrupting their overall defensive strategy and opening them up to larger operations pin-pointed against particularly vulnerable areas. 

USAF via FOIA

A map showing just some of the airstrips the U.S. military has identified around the world that it could potentially make use of in various contingencies.

And being able to rapidly send drones to forward locations, or just within reach of those areas, using FARPs could provide an important target acquisition capability for air and ground forces. A U.S. Army or Marine force with a detachment of Reapers operating in support from a nearby site would be able to better locate and engage the enemy with its own stand-off weapons, including guided artillery shells and rockets, short-range ballistic missiles, and possibly ground-launched anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles in the near future. 

The rapid deployment of artillery to remote areas has become an increasingly important tactic for the Army and Marines, in Syria especially where American forces and their local partners would otherwise lack that kind of responsive fire support. Being able to quickly add a contingent of Reapers nearby would make these sorts of "islands" - figurative in the Middle East, but potentially literal in a Pacific theater scenario – much more viable, even against more capable foes.

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As more advanced unmanned technologies mature in the future, the Air Force could expand on the concept of forward deploying drones with FARP support. Unmanned aircraft deployed at dispersed locations could act as "loyal wingmen" for manned aircraft as part of manned-unmanned teams. Another future scenario might involve using FARPs to rapidly establish even more revolutionary autonomous or semi-autonomous unmanned combat air vehicle operations where the aircraft can take off and land and fly complete intelligence gathering or strike missions on their own.

With so many possibilities, it will be interesting to see how this concept of using FARPs to support advanced unmanned aircraft operations evolves, but this short clip is more likely than not a glimpse into the Air Force's increasingly pilotless future.

Correction: The wording of the original version of this article implied that the US Air Force may have just started conducting FARP operations with MQ-9s. The service has been doing so for some time. We have updated the post to make this more clear.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com