DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The fate of the MQ-9 Reaper has once again entered the public debate after senior US defense officials confirmed that Houthi militants had shot down one of the drones over international waters off the coast of Yemen on November 8th.
In recent years, experts have questioned the sustainability of flying such expensive aircraft in troubled environments, where less expensive countermeasures can target them.
For example, in 2021, the Air Force attempted to reduce the procurement of the drone manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in the fiscal year 2022 budget.
Earlier this month, Brandon Tseng, president of drone and software firm Shield AI, said the MQ-9 is “too expensive and too slow to regenerate to continue operating within the range of surface-to-air missiles.”
“The MQ-9 is a great aircraft, I have used it. But for the future fight, it is necessary to redefine his role as a quarterback of intelligent attackable aircraft teams,” he wrote on LinkedIn. “And this doesn’t just apply to the MQ-9; includes MQ-4, MQ-1, P-8, SH-60, etc.”
And an article earlier this year on the U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute website noted that “the MQ-9 Reaper may not be survivable in an environment characterized by large-scale combat operations.” scale”.
“A decision must be made,” wrote Liam Collins, who served as Ukraine’s defense adviser from 2016 to 2018. “Should the US military deploy more survivable unmanned aerial vehicles capable of defensive maneuvers, or Invest in smaller vehicles that you don’t mind losing?
The article was in response to a March 2023 incident in which a Russian fighter jet shot down an American Reaper over the Black Sea, after initially damaging its propeller. The interception ultimately “resulted in a crash and total loss” of the plane, Air Force Gen. James Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa, said in a statement.
And in July, among other recent reports that Russia was harassing MQ-9 drones, a Russian aircraft fired flares at a Reaper involved in a counterterrorism mission over Syria, damaging its propeller.
When asked about the procurement process to build (and replace) these systems, a General Atomics Aeronautical Systems official said that “with a hot production line, we can build one in three to eight months.”
“But combat losses and attrition are built into the (U.S. Air Force) command scheme. A certain amount of losses are expected,” C. Mark Brinkley, the company’s senior director of communications, told Defense News at the Dubai Airshow this week.
The war in Ukraine has shown that it is possible to achieve successful results on the battlefield using large quantities of cheap, low-tech weapons, rather than relying on fewer and more expensive drones.
But Brinkley rejected this assessment.
“There are companies that want you to believe that they can replace the capability of a Reaper or (MQ-9B) SeaGuardian with a 100-pound rocket that can carry 25 pounds for 10 hours. The only downside is that they would need a billion dollars to invent some magical artificial intelligence that would make them relevant,” he said. “Even if that AI existed today and you could group 50 of them together, your payload and endurance would be 25% of the MQ-9B. So don’t tell me that’s the future.”
To increase the Reaper’s survivability, Brinkley recommended the integration of air-to-air missiles and an early warning radar to “radically change the situation” and reduce opportunities for harassment.
This echoed a similar recommendation made by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Lawrence Stutzriem, who advised the Pentagon to fund the integration of a self-protection capability on the Reaper, something the department has yet to do.
Dave Alexander, president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, offered two ways to respond to the Reaper’s vulnerabilities in disputed areas.
“Either you complain,” he told Defense News at the show, “or you do something about it.”
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is European correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. It is based in Milan, Italy.