US Marines Receive Reaper Drone

General Autonomics MQ-9 Reaper Drone
General Autonomics MQ-9 Reaper Drone.

The US Marine Corps has taken delivery of its first General Autonomics MQ-9 Reaper Drone supplied under a US Air Force contract.

This is the initial fielded to the Marine VMU-1 Squadron intended to provide the Corps with extended endurance and medium altitude unmanned airborne surveillance capability.

The $136 million contract was made in 2022 to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which will provide eight MQ-9s that will be delivered to the Marines in 2023.

The Marine Corps program is being managed through the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). NAVAIR’s unmanned air system program team employs the Air Force’s Agile Reaper Enterprise Solution to purchase Reaper drones, associated spares, and support equipment.

MQ-9 program director Lt. Col Leigh Irwin shared that “The US Air Force has been a great partner and a major enabler in the Marine Corps’ pursuit to acquire group 5 UAS (unmanned aerial system).”

The MQ-9 Reaper is a land-based drone that, according to the US Air Force, is “ employed primarily as an intelligence-collection asset and secondarily against dynamic execution targets. Given its significant loiter time, wide-range sensors, multimode communications suite, and precision weapons, it provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination, and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets.”

The MQ-9 system carries the Multi-Spectral Targeting System, which has a suite of visual sensors for targeting integrating an infrared sensor, color monochrome daylight TV camera, shortwave infrared camera, laser designator, and laser illuminator. The full-motion video from each imaging sensor can be viewed as separate video streams or fused.

MQ-9 can also employ laser-guided munitions such as the Guided Bomb Unit-12 Paveway II or up to eight laser-guided Hellfire missiles. An extended range kit with additional fuel pods and propeller blade modification allows a further range of 1,400 nm.

The Reader employs a launch-and-recovery ground control station for take-off and landing operations at the forward operating location, while the crew based at another site executes command and control of the mission via beyond-line-of-sight links.

Recently, during its exercise Nepture Strike 2023, the US Navy demonstrated the cooperation of the MQ-9 Reaper drone and its E-2D airborne early warning aircraft to support long-range missile strikes. In the exercise, the Reaper received and passed the coordinates of the target to the E-2D Hawkeye. The airborne early warning aircraft then forwarded the strike data to US Navy F/A-18 Hornets and Spanish AV-8B Harriers, which successfully conducted the attacks.

The US Navy has fielded the MQ-4C Triton as its primary high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed by Northrop Grumman in 2018. A derivative of the US Air Force RQ-4B Global Hawk, it fills a role similar to the Marine’s Reaper. It can support persistent maritime ISR, signals intelligence, search and rescue, and communications relay missions. Its sensor payload includes AN/ZPY-3 multi-function active-sensor radar and various electro-optic systems.

by Stephen W. Miller