Commentary | Nov. 6, 2020

Changing the MQ-9 Employment Paradigm

By Col. Timothy Monroe & Lt. Col. Daniel

For the last two decades MQ-9 operational squadrons have been flying near continuous combat missions in the Middle East and North Africa. However, starting at the beginning of October, a select group of professionals operating the MQ-9 Reaper weapons system began a new approach to bolster their combat lethality.

The MQ-9 Reaper has proved to be one of the most consequential warfighting systems in modern history. Building on the successes of the MQ-1 Predator, the MQ-9 has been the backbone of the fight against Violent Extremism.

When Air Force Chief of Staff, General Charles Brown, published his recently released strategic approach, titled Accelerate Change or Lose, he placed specific emphasis on the context in which we are currently operating. “While the nation was focused on countering violent extremist organizations, our competitors focused on defeating us.”

The women and men enabling, and conducting MQ-9 operations, have been aware of this for many years, as unrelenting combatant command requirements kept the Reaper focused on the Violent Extremist threat.

Not surprisingly, this insatiable demand meant the MQ-9 had little capacity for other opportunities; such as exercises, joint integration efforts, and broad based technological upgrades that would maximize the platforms impact in peer and near-peer conflict.

However, the same Airmen who have repeatedly met the demands of a continuous combat mission, are committed to ushering in a new paradigm changing employment concept. In line with other Air Force platforms, the MQ-9 Enterprise has developed innovative concepts to generate and present agile, credible and effective combat airpower anywhere around the globe.

The MQ-9 Enterprise is moving aggressively toward a force presentation model that will enable the platform to realign to National Defense Strategy priorities. Being engaged in continuous combat operations has limited MQ-9 squadrons from training for most mission sets other than those commonly associated with countering violent extremism in the Middle East and North Africa.

By changing the MQ-9 employment paradigm to include a Force Generation Cycle and an Immediate Response Force, the MQ-9 can deliver a more lethal, resilient, and rapidly adaptable platform for the Joint Force, capable of presenting complicated problem sets for our adversaries. With nearly 200 aircraft and 2,200 combat aircrew in Air Combat Command alone, the MQ-9 is a strategic asset for the Department of Defense, and with innovative changes in force presentation, can have significant impact to an adversary’s calculus.

Hence, Oct. 1, 2020, for the first time ever, an MQ-9 operational squadron, the 20th Attack Squadron, redeployed out of combat and entered a 60-day reconstitution period. During this dedicated time outside of combat, which will rotate among all Active Duty combat squadrons, aircrew and intelligence experts will shift their focus from the low-end to the high-end fight.

Squadrons will focus their training on rarely seen mission sets including Air Interdiction, Combat Search and Rescue, and Air Operations in Maritime Surface Warfare scenarios. Upon completion of the force generation cycle, an MQ-9 squadron will be ready to support Combatant Commanders with additional flexible response and collection options. A force generation cycle is the first part of the paradigm shift and will produce MQ-9 crews who are proficient in multiple mission sets.

The second critical change in the employment paradigm is the creation of an Immediate Response Force (IRF), as it creates a way for the MQ-9 force to be dynamically employed around the globe at a moments notice. Not only does the IRF model allow the Air Force’s premier persistent attack and reconnaissance platform to respond rapidly to global hot spots, it also enables the Department of Defense to strategically rotate MQ-9 to different locations around the world and complicate an adversary’s decision making.     

The 49th Wing, at Holloman Air Force Base, has already demonstrated tenants of the IRF concept by deploying MQ-9s, and the remote command and control infrastructure from Holloman Air Force Base to Naval Air Station Point Mugu in September, an exercise known as AGILE REAPER. (49th Wing). AGILE REAPER was critical to demonstrating what an IRF could deliver for the Joint Force.

In Accelerate Change or Lose, General Brown also included the following quote by Giulio Douhet, “Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the change in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.”  

The MQ-9 Enterprise is aggressively changing its employment paradigm by instituting a Force Generation Cycle, and an Immediate Response Force, which enables MQ-9 as a strategic asset to achieve Dynamic Force Employment and meet the direction of  the National Defense Strategy.