Unleashing aerial potential: Marine Corps harnesses Air Force RPA expertise

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Ariel O'Shea
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

Imagine a future in which the U.S. Air Force could set up a completely functional base of operations anywhere in the world, execute a mission and pack up to leave before an adversary even knew they were there -- with limited, if any, risk to personnel.

That future is now.

It is not difficult to see the appeal of remotely piloted aircraft. They can conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as well as employ a variety of weapons -- all without putting the pilot’s life at risk. The Air Force has operated the MQ-9 Reaper RPA since 2007, and its benefits have not gone unnoticed by the U.S. Marine Corps. The Corps, with its renowned expeditionary mindset, recently began to invest in the platform, accepting its first two MQ-9s in the fall of 2021. This also resulted in the transition of Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 (VMU-1) into the branch’s first operationally-ready MQ-9A squadron.

The Air Force’s successes for more than 16 years with the MQ-9 Reaper means their Marine counterparts don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The two branches joined forces, with the Air Force enabling the Marine Corps to move fast in standing up the Medium Altitude Long Endurance portion of the Marine Air Ground Task Force Uncrewed Expeditionary, or “MUX,” family of systems. This resulted in an increased presence of unmanned aircraft in the Pacific and other theaters.

“The U.S. Air Force has been a great partner and a major enabler in the Marine Corps’ pursuit to acquire group 5 Unmanned Aerial Systems,” said Lt. Col Leigh Irwin, Marine Corps MQ-9 program director for PMA-266 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, as reported by the Navy in May 2023. “Group 5 UAS will give the Marines the ability to conduct ISR and network extensions in support of the MAGTF in support of stand-in forces and the Joint Force.”

PMA-266 is the formal designation for the Corp’s Multi-Mission Tactical Unmanned Air System program team.

Still, like any aircraft, it requires maintenance and fuel. The push to orientate more to the Pacific theater and maritime operations necessitated innovations in getting maintenance and fuel specialists on the ground in a variety of locations. This resulted in the birth of the portable aircraft control station, or “PACS.” First tested in 2022, PACS eliminates the requirement for a downrange Launch and Recovery cockpit or flight crew present, increasing the RPA’s agility. PACS also allows the ground team to complete the aircraft startup sequence without the line-of-sight LR cockpit or having flight crew present. The ground team hands control to the aircrew in a remote cockpit, who then taxi the RPA for takeoff.

This is part of the Air Force’s push to adopt Agile Combat Employment, a force-wide operational concept designed to guarantee Airmen's preparedness for unexpected situations and their capability to function from sites characterized by diverse degrees of resources and assistance. This approach aims to position Airmen and aircrew in a manner that empowers them to deliver potent combat effectiveness throughout the entire range of military engagements. With an impending ACE exercise for the MQ-9 on the horizon, the 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing moved to get the Marine Corps involved.

Capts. Steven Brosy and Joseph Dennis, ACE operational planning team leads for the 432nd Wing, played pivotal roles in the planning and execution of each phase. The first started in April 2023 as Agile Talon at Creech AFB, Agile Condor in July 2023 at Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif., and then Agile Hunter in Aug. 2023 at both Twentynine Palms and nearby Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif.

“We really wrapped our heads around the fact that there’s one expeditionary force that the Department of Defense has that are experts in the Indo-Pacific Command capacity, and amphibious force, which is the United States Marine Corps,” said Dennis. “The best part about all this is that they are just as invested in our success as we are. Everything that we gain from this exercise is from the building blocks of ACE and an MQ-9 world.”

Moreover, the agility of ACE was highlighted as a critical tool for Air Force units to rapidly adapt to changing scenarios. Agile Hunter saw the integration of lessons learned from Agile Condor. This exercise tested the capacity of the units to spread assets between two deployed locations, a concept referred to as the "dual-pronged contingency location approach." By leveraging the ability of MQ-9 Reapers to fly long distances with over-the-horizon control, the exercise effectively demonstrated the potential to double the force's size and capabilities by simultaneously operating from different locations.

“An agile exercise of this nature had never been completed by our wing, even in a small fashion,” said Brosy. “Agile Condor and Hunter had no playbook, no guideline to reference, no baseline or template that we pulled from. Basically, the idea itself is genesis from a concept and we had to materialize it into an actionable exercise. It was a constant molding and remolding throughout since we started basically from nothing to create it into something.”

The partnership with the Marine Corps proved invaluable to the exercises, underlining the importance of inter-service collaboration.

“We are leveraging the lessons the 432nd is learning,” said U.S. Marine Corps Col. Jeremie Hester, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 39 at Twentynine Palms. “The Air Force is emulating our operations that are expeditionary in nature, and in return, they are helping us figure out how to get on a piece of terrain, fight on it, disrupt the enemy and then move before they can park there.”

The exercise had historic milestones for both the Air Force and Marine Corps. It was the first time an Air Force MQ-9 participated in the Marines’ Service Level Training Exercise 5-23. It was also the first time the Air Force’s Reaper had landed at Camp Pendleton, which occurred Aug. 22, 2023.

The joint force cooperation seen in this exercise adds to an already robust defense plan. Already, MQ-9 units from around the country plan temporary duty to Creech to participate in the exercise and receive training on ACE tactics, techniques and procedures.

“What we're doing is something that people want to get behind and are excited about moving forward, from the top down from our wing leadership all the way down to the lowest Airman,” said Brosy. “People are excited about this concept, and they want to be a piece of history. That’s what makes it so great to work with our partners in the Marine Corps, and this interest will ensure that we are prepared for the fight ahead.”