WASHINGTON — A battle is brewing over the fate of the MQ-9 Reaper, with a letter from the U.S. Air Force’s top civilian signaling that the service will again seek to curtail procurement of the General Atomics-made drone in the upcoming fiscal 2022 budget.
“Our current MQ-9 fleet is sufficient to support current and future operational and training requirements,” acting Air Force Secretary John Roth wrote in a letter to Sen. Jacky Rosen dated April 1, which was recently viewed by Defense News. “There is no need to buy more aircraft.”
Rosen — a Democrat whose home state of Nevada is home to Creech Air Force Base, where multiple active, reserve and Air National Guard squadrons fly MQ-9s — had written to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in March looking for assurances that the Air Force will continue to buy new Reaper drones.
Roth, writing in Austin’s stead, offered no such promises. Instead, he doubled down on the Air Force’s plan to stop MQ-9 procurement and added that the service intends to outline its plan to replace the MQ-9 — a requirement set by the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill.
“Looking to the future force, the service does not intend to rely on exquisite, single platform, high-cost systems to replace the MQ-9. Instead, we will use a family of interconnected multi-role systems, engineered to reduce cost and increase interoperability,” Roth said.
A spokesperson for Rosen did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The Air Force also declined to comment.
The Defense Department is set to release its FY22 budget on May 28. If the Air Force presses forward with a second attempt to shut down the MQ-9 line, it could spark a fight between those who believe the Reaper is unfit for a near-peer fight — a group comprising the top Air Force brass and the service’s future planning organizations — and the large group of MQ-9 stakeholders and constituencies.
The latter group includes the combatant commanders who rely on the Reaper for surveillance, Air National Guard squadrons that operate the drone and can independently advocate for their own interests, MQ-9 manufacturer General Atomics, and lawmakers with MQ-9 units in their districts.
In its FY21 budget request, the Air Force eliminated all funding to buy MQ-9 Reaper aircraft that year and in the future, effectively canceling plans to purchase 31 Reapers from FY21 through FY24. Instead, service officials asked for about $172 million to begin shutting down General Atomics’ production line in Poway, California.
Congress rejected the Air Force’s plan, setting aside $286 million in the budget to buy 16 more MQ-9 drones.
The MQ-9 is one of the most prolific Air Force aircraft, currently operating out of 20 bases located in 17 states, according to the service’s biennial acquisition report.
“We have a fleet of over 300 MQ-9s right now, and if you look at the life cycle of the MQ-9, we’ve got 15-plus years left on them, and that’s a good place to be,” Lt. Gen. David Nahom, Air Force deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said during the McAleese & Associates conference this month.
If the Air Force is successful in ending MQ-9 production, it is unclear what the industrial impact would be. General Atomics currently has a backlog of MQ-9 variants that will sustain the production line through at least 2026, said C. Mark Brinkley, the director of strategic communications and marketing at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.
“There will be both short-term and long-term effects if the Air Force decides to stop buying MQ-9s in FY22, but I can’t predict with any certainty what those will be. It’s a true ‘what if?’ scenario at this point,” he said.
The company’s biggest concern is that if the Air Force stops MQ-9 procurement rather than more gradually slowing down production, the service may find itself in a position in the late 2020s where it needs to buy more Reapers and cannot, Brinkley said.
“You can’t just jump back in later because you got it wrong and suddenly turn on the tap again. That’s not how production works,” he said. “You lose a lot of the economies and value that you built over time once you come to a stop. The nation has made a great investment in the MQ-9, and if we throw that away, it’s just gone.”
But the Air Force argues it will be unable to develop the advanced unmanned capabilities it needs to contend with Chinese and Russian threats unless it pulls funding from legacy drones like the MQ-9, which defense officials say could not survive a conflict with a near-peer competitor.
“We are trying to divest ourselves of the ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] that is not particularly useful against a Russia or a China or even [the] dense air defense systems of an Iran or a North Korea, and invest in those ISR systems that do have penetration capability,” Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers in a March 2020 hearing. “It makes no sense to me to continue to buy stuff that isn’t in alignment with the [National Defense Strategy].”
Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who oversees U.S. operations in the Middle East as head of U.S. Central Command, told lawmakers in April that the MQ-9 “is not viable” in a high-end fight, including against some of the threats that could be posed by adversaries operating in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility in the near future.
However, he added, the platform would remain “vital” to CENTCOM, particularly as the U.S. military pulls ground forces from Afghanistan.
“Our ability to maintain persistent overhead coverage will possibly require additional MQ-9s because of the range from the base to the place where we will actually be looking,” he said. “We may even need more of them in Central Command dedicated to that particular task.”
A future for the MQ-9?
In the run up to the FY22 budget release, a number of lawmakers have questioned defense officials about the capability of the MQ-9 and the overall need for more ISR platforms, including: Rosen; Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.; Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; and Rep. Kenneth Calvert, R-Calif.
Other lawmakers, like Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, have taken a more direct approach. A member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee, he spoke directly with Roth to advocate for MQ-9 procurement in the FY22 budget, his office stated in a May 24 news release.
Frank Kendall, the Biden administration’s nominee for Air Force secretary, told lawmakers during his May 25 confirmation hearing that he’d be open to funding additional upgrades for the MQ-9 that would make it more survivable in a non-permissive environment.
“I know that some things have been talked about, including adding more countermeasures to the aircraft and providing some standoff capability. And I think those are well worth looking at,” he said. “We’ve made a big investment in that platform, and it would be a shame to not be able to utilize it against more significant sophisticated threats.”
Some of those upgrades could look similar to the “Ghost Reaper” configuration the service tested as part of this month’s Northern Edge exercise held in Alaska. Over a period of several weeks at Eielson Air Force Base, the service assessed the performance of several new pods for the MQ-9, including:
- A hardened targeting pod.
- Northrop Grumman’s Freedom Pod, which allows the Reaper to pass data between fourth- and fifth-generation fighters.
- The REAP pod, which connects to ground systems.
- The Reaper Defense Electronic Support System, which is a new pod that identifies and locates electronic signals from threatening systems at standoff distances.
While many of those capabilities are not yet built into the program of record, the Air Force is funding a new “Multi-Domain Operation” configuration upgrade for 71 MQ-9s, which would add internal power modification, an anti-jam antenna system, Link 16 data link, additional weapon capacity, open-architecture design and improved mission resiliency.
The service has begun retrofitting some of its MQ-9 fleet with these systems and is currently negotiating a contract with General Atomics to cut the capabilities into the drone’s production line so that new ones are manufactured with the upgrades already built in.
“With these smart investments the Air Force projects that MQ-9 will remain operationally viable through the end of the platform’s projected service life of 2035,” a spokesman for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center said in response to questions from Defense News.
Don’t fear the Reaper replacement
The Air Force hasn’t sought a successor for the MQ-9 Reaper since the MQ-X program was canceled in 2012. But over the past year, the service has begun exploring how it will eventually replace the Reaper in the 2030s.
It released a request for information to industry in June 2020 for market research on existing technology and conceptual designs.
Then in March 2021, the service published a second RFI for a “Next-Generation Multi-Role Unmanned Aerial System Family of Systems,” further widening the scope of what it could seek out to replace the MQ-9.
The Air Force envisions its MQ-9 replacement as a series of drones that would run the gamut in terms of cost and capability, from expendable systems to highly survivable ones.
“Future Next-Gen Multi-Role UAS FoS technologies must hold a different role than they do today and address capabilities beyond traditional UAS mission sets, such as air-to-air, base defense, electronic warfare, moving target indicator (air and ground) capabilities, and be designed for native integration into [the Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept],” the service said in its solicitation.
General Atomics responded to the solicitation, Brinkley said, and the company agrees that the Air Force needs a family of unmanned aircraft to contend with future threats. But, he added, the MQ-9 should continue to be a part of that enterprise.
“We have an amazing airframe already. And we have lots of people developing new tech that works great on the MQ-9,” Brinkley said. “Whether it’s hardware or software, the MQ-9 can incorporate all of these new advancements. It’s the perfect platform to experiment on.”
For its part, the Air Force is in no rush to fund a program of record for the MQ-9 replacement; it’s in a “comfortable spot” where the service has time to evaluate its options, Nahom said.
“We can sit back and actually analyze: What does a replacement need to look like, and what does the war fighter need?” Nahom added.
Other parts of the Air Force are not so lucky, he noted.
“You look at a fleet like the E-3 AWACS, and that’s a fleet right now where you don’t necessarily have the time right now, and it’s probably a much bigger concern.”
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.