The Air Force flew two big MQ-9 Reaper drones for the first time from the continental United States to Hawaii to demonstrate the unmanned aircraft’s “untapped potential in a maritime environment” and to participate in Exercise ACE Reaper at Marine Corps Base Hawaii — which will eventually have six of the aircraft based there.
The 49th Wing at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico said three MQ-9s would participate in the exercise (with one shipped to Hawaii) with “personnel from multiple installations rapidly deploying and integrating with other sister services in a maritime environment.”
Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, focuses on the ability to move aircraft rapidly 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-firing trucks to Navy submarines have become a key focus of the Pentagon as it strives to maintain a credible deterrence to the rapid rise of China’s military.
A hybrid fleet will be necessary for the Navy to meet emerging security concerns, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said in the Navy and Marine Corps’ Unmanned Campaign Framework released in March.
“Unmanned Systems have and will continue to play a key part in future distributed maritime operations, and there is a clear need to field affordable, lethal, scalable, and connected capabilities,” Gilday said. “That is why the Navy is expanding and developing a range of unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned undersea vehicles, and unmanned surface vessels that will play key roles as we shift our focus toward smaller platforms that operate in a more dispersed manner.”
All the service branches are seeking to integrate to a level never seen before in response to the China threat — which is rapidly eroding a U.S. advantage around the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea.
The Defense Department has concluded that it needs to mesh all capabilities across sea, air, land, space and cyberspace to deter China or win in a conflict.
The Air Force said one Reaper would be flown to Hawaii from Holloman, one flown from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, and one would be shipped from Holloman. The distance from Holloman to Oahu is about 3,260 miles.
The purpose of ACE Reaper, running Sept. 8 through Oct. 8, “is to demonstrate the MQ-9’s capabilities and our service members’ abilities to rapidly mobilize and integrate across multiple domains. 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 primarily occurs over 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, a spokeswoman for the 49th Wing at Holloman.
The Marine Corps said in March that Hawaii will be getting six MQ-9A Reaper drones that can be armed with missiles as the Corps as a whole pursues “a deliberate but aggressive” path toward unmanned systems.
“Today’s global security environment has seen a return to great power competition,” the Navy and Marine Corps said in the Unmanned Campaign Framework. “This shift has placed the Department of the Navy at an inflection point where a traditional force structure will not be enough in the face of new warfighting demands.”
Maj. Joshua Benson, a Marine Corps spokesman, said the six Reapers will arrive in Hawaii beginning in fiscal 2023 and fall under the already existing Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3, or VMU-3, which operates much smaller RQ-21A Blackjack drones.
By practicing in Hawaii with MQ-9s from the mainland, “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 several big changes coming to Marine Corps Base Hawaii as the entire Corps undergoes a radical reorganization designed to remake it as a fast-moving and distributed missile force aided by unmanned ships, vehicles and aircraft that can sink ships at sea.
The Marines, for example, announced that three dozen or more conventional helicopters — the entire Marine Corps fleet here — will be departing Kaneohe Bay and a squadron of KC-130J cargo and refueling aircraft that can fly long distances will be based in Hawaii in coming years. Two squadrons of MV-22 Ospreys will remain in Hawaii.
The turboprop-powered Reaper, with a wingspan of 66 feet, a maximum takeoff weight of 10,500 pounds and a flight endurance of 34 hours for the “extended range” version, was first flown in 2001 and has been used by the Air Force in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other locations worldwide.
The hunter-killer drone was designated “Reaper” by the U.S. and Royal Air Force, which has become the widely used name for any “Predator B” model equipped with weapons, according to maker General Atomics. The Reaper is bigger and heavier than the Predator.
Marine Corps MQ-9As would be the biggest military drones in Hawaii. By comparison, Army RQ-7B Shadows that have operated out of Wheeler Army Airfield have a 20-foot wingspan and 460-pound gross takeoff weight.
Unarmed Wheeler Shadows pair with AH-64 Apache helicopters as one example of Army force multiplication using an unmanned system.
The Hawaii-based Reapers, which will be operated by hundreds of Marine Corps personnel performing a range of jobs, could be armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, officials said. The Air Force has used laser-guided bombs.
The Marine Corps’ top modernization priority is developing a ground-based anti-ship missile capability. In August, Hawaii Marines fired two Naval Strike Missiles from an unmanned truck at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.
The missiles flew over 100 nautical miles (115 statute miles) in a “non-linear” path around simulated shipping and other obstacles to strike the decommissioned Navy frigate ex-USS Ingraham 60 nautical miles from Kauai.
The missile launch utilized what’s known as the Navy/Marine Corps Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System, or NMESIS, that’s paired with a joint light tactical vehicle stripped of its crew cab and turned into a robotic vehicle that can be directed with a gamelike remote controller or programmed to follow other vehicles.