Air Force flies 2 MQ-9 Reaper drones from mainland to Hawaii in new maritime focus

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An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flight line at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., Dec. 17, 2019 (Haley Stevens / US Air Force)

(Tribune News Service) – The Air Force said it was flying two large MQ-9 Reaper drones from the continental United States to Hawaii for the first time to demonstrate the aircraft’s “untapped potential in a maritime environment” without pilot and to participate in Exercise ACE Reaper at Marine Corps Base Hawaii – which will ultimately have six planes based there.

The 49th Wing at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico said three MQ-9s will participate in the exercise (one will be dispatched to Hawaii) with “personnel from multiple facilities deploying and rapidly integrating with other services brothers in a maritime environment “.

Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, focuses on the ability to quickly move planes to a network of smaller airfields in the Western Pacific to avoid being targeted by Chinese missiles in the event of war.

Unmanned systems, from Marine Corps missile trucks to Navy submarines, have become a key focus of the Pentagon as it strives to maintain a credible deterrent against the rapid build-up of the Chinese army.

A hybrid fleet will be needed for the Navy to respond to emerging security concerns, Chief of Naval Operations Mike Gilday said as part of the Navy and Marine Corps Unmanned Campaign released in March.

“Unmanned systems have played and will continue to play a key role in future distributed maritime operations, and there is a clear need to build affordable, lethal, scalable and connected capabilities,” said Gilday. “This is why the Navy is expanding and developing a line of unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned underwater vehicles and unmanned surface ships that will play a key role as we focus on smaller platforms that operate in a more dispersed fashion. “

All service branches are seeking to integrate at a level never seen before in response to the Chinese threat – which is rapidly eroding a US advantage around the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea.

The Defense Ministry concluded that it must mesh all maritime, air, land, space and cyberspace capabilities to deter China or win in a conflict.

The Air Force said a Reaper would be flown to Hawaii from Holloman, one from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, and one from Holloman. The distance between Holloman and Oahu is approximately 3,260 miles.

The objective of ACE Reaper, from September 8 to October 8, “is to demonstrate the capabilities of the MQ-9 and the capabilities of our military to mobilize and integrate rapidly in several areas. The exercise also serves as an opportunity to train in a maritime environment and in a different airspace, ”the Air Force said.

MQ-9 training takes place primarily on land, but the Air Force with ACE Reaper “is testing the capabilities of using MQ-9s over water to demonstrate our readiness in any environment” said Denise Ottaviano, spokesperson for 49 Wing in Holloman.

The Marine Corps said in March that Hawaii would get six MQ-9A Reaper drones that can be armed with missiles, as the Corps as a whole is pursuing a “deliberate but aggressive” path to unmanned systems.

US Air Force Tech.  Sgt.  James Delgadillo, loadmaster instructor from the 58th Airlift Squadron, directs a forklift at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Sept. 9, 2021. More than 30,000 pounds of MQ-9 Reaper assets were loaded as part of the Agile Combat Employment Reaper exercise.

US Air Force Tech. Sgt. James Delgadillo, loadmaster instructor from the 58th Airlift Squadron, directs a forklift at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Sept. 9, 2021. More than 30,000 pounds of MQ-9 Reaper assets were loaded as part of the Agile Combat Employment Reaper exercise. (Kayla Christens / US Air Force)

“Today’s global security environment has seen a return to great power competition,” the Navy and Marine Corps said in the unmanned campaign. “This change has placed the Department of the Navy at an inflection point where a traditional force structure will not suffice in the face of new combat demands.”

Marine Corps spokesperson Major Joshua Benson said the six Reapers will arrive in Hawaii starting in Exercise 2023 and will report to Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3, or VMU-3, which operates RQ-21A drones. Much smaller blackjack.

By training in Hawaii with mainland MQ-9s, “our joint partners are able to test the full extent of their future capabilities,” the Air Force said.

The addition of Reapers is just one of many big changes coming to Marine Corps Base Hawaii as the entire corps undergoes a radical reorganization designed to make it a distributed and rapid missile force, aided by ships, vehicles and unmanned aircraft that could sink ships. at sea.

The Marines, for example, have announced that at least three dozen conventional helicopters – the entire Marine Corps fleet – will depart Kaneohe Bay and that a squadron of KC cargo and refueling aircraft 130Js capable of traveling long distances will be based in Hawaii for years to come. . Two squadrons of MV-22 Ospreys will remain in Hawaii.

The turboprop Reaper, with a wingspan of 66 feet, a maximum takeoff weight of 10,500 pounds and a flight range of 34 hours for the “extended range” version, flew for the first time in 2001 and was used by the Air Force. in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere in the world.

The hunter-killer drone has been designated a “Reaper” by the United States and the Royal Air Force, which has become the widely used name for any weapon-equipped “Predator B” model, according to manufacturer General Atomics. The Reaper is bigger and heavier than the Predator.

The Marine Corps’ MQ-9As are said to be Hawaii’s largest military drones. In comparison, the Army’s Shadow RQ-7Bs that operated from Wheeler Army Airfield have a wingspan of 20 feet and a gross take-off mass of 460 pounds.

Unarmed Wheeler Shadows team up with Apache AH-64 helicopters as an example of army force multiplication using an unmanned system.

The Hawaii-based Reapers, which will be operated by hundreds of Marine Corps members doing various jobs, could be armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, officials said. The Air Force used laser-guided bombs.

The main priority for modernizing the Marine Corps is to develop an anti-ship missile capability on the ground. In August, the Hawaii Marines fired two naval strike missiles from an unmanned truck at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai.

The missiles flew over 100 nautical miles (115 statute miles) on a “non-linear” path around simulated navigation and other obstacles to strike the decommissioned Navy frigate ex-USS Ingraham 60 nautical miles from Kauai .

The missile launch used what is known as the Navy / Marine Corps Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System, or NMESIS, which is paired with a common light tactical vehicle stripped of its crew cabin and transformed into a robotic vehicle that can be steered with a remote control or programmed. follow other vehicles.

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