MQ-9 Reaper Tests Prove It Can Operate From Unprepared Locations On The Fly

The Air Force recently tested a new landing and take-off capability that could allow the MQ-9 to self deploy to a much wider range of locales.

Air Force's hunter-killer UAV now flying in Afghanistan
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The U.S. Air Force just demonstrated a new capability for the MQ-9 Reaper that could pave the way for the unmanned aircraft to deploy to and operate from a wider array of locations and without the need to have specialized infrastructure in place. The service has also now demonstrated how the drones can use targeting pods and other sensors to generate reference points for automatic landing and takeoff capabilities from the air to further support future agile, expeditionary deployments. This is a broader concept of operations that the Air Force has been developing, with a particular eye toward future distributed operations, particularly in the Pacific.

The 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada conducted two successful demonstrations of the General Atomics MQ-9’s Automatic Takeoff and Landing Capability (ATLC) on July 8, 2021, according to a USAF press release issued recently. During the tests, crews operated the MQ-9 from Nellis Air Force Base, located 56 miles away, using a satellite datalink. 

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Reaper flying over the Nevada Test and Training Range. 

The successful demonstration shows the Reaper's ability to “divert to airfields without traditional launch and recovery infrastructure or personnel," according to the Air Force. The service said that this new capability for MQ-9, combined with an upcoming software upgrade and a new portable aircraft control station, will “change how it will be employed in theaters worldwide.”

In the two-day demonstration, the Nellis-based 556th TES crew used satellite control links to fly the MQ-9 from Creech to Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico where it landed, taxied, and took off again to return to Creech. The USAF says the aircrew “used imagery in the cockpit to generate the reference points for the automated landing system” during the first day of testing.

The second day of the tests saw the crew fly the Reaper from Creech to Holloman Air Force Base and back, with the MQ-9 using a targeting pod to collect data about the destination's runway, fly in a safe traffic pattern, then land and take off again. The Air Force has previously tested the use of targeting pods for non-traditional geolocation purposes aboard C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, in which the pods combined imagery from electro-optical and infrared sensors with laser rangefinder data to generate specific geographic coordinates that identify landing sites for airdrops. 

USAF/A1C Jessica Sanchez

An MQ-9 Reaper prepares to take off from Holloman AFB using the Automatic Takeoff and Landing Capability.

The recent tests of a targeting pod being used for ATLC aboard the MQ-9 is a further demonstration of how those sensors' capabilities can be leveraged for non-traditional purposes. The MQ-9 in its baseline configuration carries the Multi-Spectral Targeting System which includes an infrared sensor, both color and monochrome daylight cameras, and short and mid-wave infrared cameras. In addition, the MQ-9 is equipped with a laser range finder and designator, the former of which would be used to help gather precise geolocation data on unfamiliar landing areas.

It's unknown, then, why the 556th TES would test the MQ-9's automatic takeoff and landing capabilities using a targeting pod instead of using the native MTS sensor ball. It could be that the pod has better performance for generating precise coordinates and bolting one on is a cheaper and faster solution than upgrading the native system to leverage the MTS instead—at least for now. Also, the pod provides another pair of independent 'eyes in the sky,' which can be beneficial for a number of reasons.

USAF/A1C Jessica Sanchez

The MQ-9 used in recent ATLC tests, shown here at Holloman AFB.

Prior to these recent tests, the MQ-9 primarily employed split operations, meaning one crew piloted the aircraft from a ground station, such as at Creech AFB, while another specialized crew, sometimes on the other side of the world, was tasked with launching and recovering the drone in-theater once it came within line of sight and was "handed off." It was also necessary for these recovery personnel on the ground to electronically mark reference points on runways using an actual Reaper. This effectively precluded the unmanned aircraft from self-deploying to an airstrip where this data had not already been collected and that did not have the other supporting infrastructure already in place. 

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An MQ-9 in Afghanistan in 2015.

Now, the MQ-9 will be able to land at a much wider variety of airfields and installations without the need for these predetermined reference points. From the USAF's description, it also sounds like the Reaper may soon be able to be operated by just one flight crew, flying the aircraft remotely and using the new ATLC system to land and launch the plane on its own without a dedicated ground launch and recovery crew. Of course, the aircraft would still need to be fueled, serviced, and rearmed by humans on the ground at any destination.

In addition, the Air Force's announcement about the capability states that "the technology and 556th TES-derived tactics are ready today for the aircraft to divert to a foreign field where an MQ-9 has never been before." This would be highly useful in emergencies or for contingency operations, but in the future, it could allow MQ-9s to operate from a forward arming and refueling point, or FARP, instead of having to transit huge distances to return to a fixed base to rearm and reload, which takes a long time as it is a turboprop. This would be especially useful if the Reaper was ever tasked with covering large areas of the Pacific, a region for which the Air Force has been developing more flexible deployment scenarios.

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A maintenance airman inspects an MQ-9 Reaper in Afghanistan in 2015.

Specifically, the Air Force says it is now particularly interested in how ATLC can help integrate MQ-9s into future operations centered on the Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concept. This is a broader initiative to move toward being able to deploy aircraft to various forward locations, including more remote or austere sites with limited resources. Overall, the ACE concept is an attempt to make it more difficult to defend against U.S. air operations and to provide better proximity for forces to key areas during a conflict and to enhance those forces' survivability. The initiative also aims to make aircraft deployments more flexible and less predictable, enabling small numbers of aircraft to operate from austere locations, where they can land and take back off quickly regardless of existing infrastructure. 

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A Reaper undergoing a pre-flight check in Afghanistan in 2015.

The Air Force has previously used MC-130J Commando II special operations transport aircraft to send crews to operate the UAV in forward deployments. This operation requires having site survey data on hand for safe landing and takeoff operations of the MQ-9, so it limits the places where the USAF can rapidly deploy the aircraft. The new capabilities offered by the ATLC concept would give this same force package a lot more potential basing options, while also potentially removing a large logistical and financial burden by flying the MQ-9 through satellite links only, without the need to transport a specialized launch and recovery crew. 

This could also drastically cut down the amount of time it takes to deploy an MQ-9, as the aircraft could fly itself to a new airfield and be ready to redeploy in a much shorter time than if it was disassembled and transported inside a container. In 2013, for example, it was considered fast to be able to have an MQ-1 Predator up and running three weeks after landing at an austere overseas airfield. The more portable ground control station mentioned in the Air Force's ATLC announcement would only offer more speed and flexibility in operations.

In addition to making deployments more flexible, ACE could help reduce the Air Force's reliance on known, established bases that would likely be targeted in the opening stages of a major conflict. The concept is intended for use in the Pacific, in order to “ensure agility, deterrence, and resiliency in a contested or degraded environment,” according to a prior USAF release

While designed primarily as a long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance platform, the Reaper can also be fitted with a variety of air-to-ground and even potentially air-to-air weapons. The aircraft's long-endurance capabilities and easy adaptability have also made it a very convenient platform to bolting on all types of podded systems—from wide-area surveillance systems, to electronic warfare pods, to networking relays, to AI computer brains, and much more. This wide mix of bolt-on weaponry and podded capabilities makes the Reaper uniquely suited to protecting areas around island outposts or providing multiple forms of intelligence collection over a broad swathe of ocean in low-to-medium threat environments.

General Atomics

Despite this proof of concept of the Automatic Takeoff and Landing Capability, the future of the MQ-9 remains uncertain, as the Air Force has already signaled it wants to shut down production on the UAV. That debate is ongoing within the Department of Defense, with some top USAF leaders arguing there is no need for any more MQ-9 aircraft. The Air Force has already begun planning on the UAV’s replacement, tentatively known as the MQ-Next.

Regardless, the MQ-9 will still serve for many years to come and it has a role to play even in a higher-end conflict, one which will require the Reapers to operate more independently than ever before.

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An MQ-9 Reaper

Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com