Marines Lay Out Plans For Their Own MQ-9 Reaper Drone Force In New Budget Request

This would give the service its first long-endurance drones and help pave the way for future unmanned aircraft capabilities.

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The U.S. Marine Corps is looking to buy its first ever MQ-9 Reaper drones in the 2020 fiscal year, which would significantly increase service's organic unmanned aviation capabilities. This follows the Marines' employment of contractor-operated MQ-9s in Afghanistan and the Corps sending personnel to train with the U.S. Air Force to fly the Reaper ahead of its plans to acquire its own large, long-endurance drone called the MUX sometime in the future.

The U.S. Navy, which shares a budget with the Marine Corps, announced the plan during the rollout of its annual funding request for the 2020 Fiscal Year on Mar. 12, 2019. The proposal calls for $77 million to support the purchase of three MQ-9s, but it is unclear at present what this figure covers. The flyaway cost for a new Block 5 MQ-9 is around $20 million, according to U.S. Air Force budget documents for the 2019 Fiscal Year. The Navy plans to request an unspecified amount of funds to buy the Marines three more Reapers in Fiscal Year 2021, as well.

Reapers fall into what the U.S. military refers to as "Group 5" unmanned aircraft, which refer to drones with a maximum takeoff weight of 1,320 pounds or more that can fly at altitudes of 18,000 feet or higher. This the top tier, so it includes a wide variety of pilotless planes with very disparate capabilities, from the MQ-9 to the much higher flying and much longer endurance RQ-4 Global Hawk.

But at present, the Marines do not have any drones more capable than "Group 3," which covers types with maximum takeoff weights between 56 and 1,319 pounds, that cannot fly higher than 18,000 feet, and that have top speeds slower than 300 miles per hour. The Corps' most capable unmanned aircraft at present is the RQ-21A Blackjack, which weighs around 135 pounds and a maximum speed of 86 miles per hour. This puts it in Group 3, even though its service ceiling "less than 20,000 feet," according to manufacturer Boeing Insitu.

The Reapers will be able to provide a level of persistent surveillance that has proven to be extremely useful for denying terrorists, insurgents, and other armed groups the ability to operate with impunity, especially at night. In Afghanistan, where the Marines are still actively advising and assisting that country's military and other security forces, aerial surveillance has been key to keeping the Taliban and other groups as contained as possible.

But without their own Group 5 drones, the Marines have had to rely on other services, primarily the Air Force, to provide this support for its forces in places such as Afghanistan. As of January 2018, the Air Force had nearly three squadrons worth of MQ-9s at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, making it the largest forward-deployed MQ-9 force to date. But that doesn't mean they're necessarily always available to the Marines in neighboring Helmand province when they might need them most. 

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Reapers in a hangar at Kandahar Airfield.

The lack of a long endurance drone under direct Marine Corps' control was what prompted the Navy to hire General Atomics, which makes the Reaper, to supply a single "orbit" of these drones to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support over Marines in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province in June 2018. The War Zone was first to report that this plan was in the works five months earlier.

It's unclear what an "orbit" consisted of in this case, but, traditionally, a standard Air Force "combat air patrol" has consisted of four Reapers. In theory, this means one drone is heading out to relieve another one already on station just as a third one is returning to base to refuel. This provides constant coverage over a particular area, with the fourth unmanned aircraft being available as a reserve in case of an accident or if one of the drones is just in need of routine maintenance. However, the Air Force has also deployed smaller numbers of Reapers to meet more limited demands in austere locations. 

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A General Atomics-owned MQ-9, carrying a US civil registration code, prepares to take off from Miroslawiec Air Base, Poland in March 2019.

In addition, the contractor-operated MQ-9s would have been limited legally to conducting only unarmed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. Marine-owned Reapers would be under no such restrictions and would be able to fly missions carrying various precision guided munitions.

So, despite their small numbers, the Marines' new MQ-9s would offer an important capability boost and one that is more responsive the demands of the Corps. The service has already been sending personnel to train to fly the drones with the Air Force at Randolph Air Force Base since June 2018, which would reduce the time it would take to stand up an operational unit. In addition, if the Marines continue to make use of this joint service training pipeline, it would eliminate the need to sideline any of its own Reapers for this purpose.

The Marine Corps has also previously said that just training individuals to operate the Reaper would be a valuable part of the process toward developing a more robust Group 5 drone capability. The service still has plans to eventually adopt a family of more capable unmanned aircraft as part of its Marine Air Ground Task Force Unmanned Aircraft System Expeditionary program, or MUX, which you can read about in much more detail here.

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An early official graphic showing some of the possible missions and aircraft configurations the Marines have been considering for their future MUX drones.

The Marines are pushing ahead with MUX, despite the fact that Congress approved less than half of the funding the Navy had initially requested for the program in the 2019 Fiscal Year. Legislators had expressed concerns that the Marine Corps was insufficiently prepared to quickly adopt a new and complex fleet of large vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) unmanned aircraft. 

Acquiring the small force of MQ-9s first would give the service valuable experience that would also help mitigate those concerns going forward. MUX is still in the 2020 Fiscal Year budget request, as well, though we don't know yet how much funding the Navy is asking for the program for this year. Of course, Congress will still have to approve the requests for both MUX and the Reapers before the Marines can move ahead with either.

Whatever happens, the Marine Corps is clearly still determined to at least begin establishing a force of significantly larger and more capable drones in the coming years.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com