The Marine Corps has MQ-9 Reapers, large uncrewed aircraft designed primarily for intelligence-gathering. But who can fly them?
It’s a question Gen. David Berger, the Marine commandant, posed in a training and education planning document released in January.
Under the heading “Issues Requiring Further Analysis,” Berger wrote, “MQ-9 Operators. Should the Marine Corps consider other options besides commissioned officers to become qualified as naval aviators?”
For now, the Marine Corps appears to lean toward “No.”
“Marine Corps aviation has a strong lineage dating back over 100 years that celebrates commissioned officers, warrant officers, and enlisted ranks alike,” Maj. Jay Hernandez, a spokesman for Marine aviation, wrote in a statement to Marine Corps Times. “Due to U.S. Code and the commitments required of the naval aviation pipeline, commissioned officers are the optimal choice in fulfilling naval aviator criteria.”
“The Department of Aviation continues to analyze the personnel strength across all aviation platforms while adhering to policies and legislation,” Hernandez added.
Hernandez pointed to 10 U.S. § 653 and 10 U.S. § 8162. The first piece of legislation states that troops trained as fixed-wing pilots must serve for eight years. The typical required service length for enlisted Marines, meanwhile, is four years.
The second piece of legislation contains a provision stating that those in charge of Marine aviation units must be officers designated as naval aviators.
The basic crew for an MQ-9 consists of a commissioned pilot, who controls the drone and commands the mission, and an enlisted crewmember who operates the sensors and interprets their data, Maj. Jordan Fox, a spokesman for 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, said in a March statement about his unit’s receipt of the aircraft.
Berger’s question about the feasibility of non-officer pilots comes as the Marine Corps is emphasizing reconnaissance as part of a series of sweeping changes to the service, known as Force Design 2030. MQ-9 Reapers are one way the Marine Corps plans to get better at reconnaissance.
After leasing two Reapers from General Atomics since 2018, the Marine Corps acquired them in 2021.
It was the first time the Marine Corps acquired drones in “Group 5,” a Defense Department definition referring to the largest unmanned aerial systems, Marine Corps Times previously reported.
The Marine Corps is looking to field 18 Reapers, according to the aviation plan.
Meanwhile, the military services are facing a shortage of qualified pilots for fixed-wing aircraft. As of March 2022, the Marine Corps had only 38 of the 68 MQ-9 operators it needed, according to the Marine Corps’ 2022 aviation plan.
In March 2023, Berger acknowledged that the Marine Corps was having trouble getting MQ-9 operators trained fast enough, Breaking Defense reported. Instead of relying on the Air Force for training, as it does now, the Corps may ask General Atomics to train Marines or set up its own school, Berger said.
Gil Barndollar, who served as a Marine infantry officer from 2009–2016, told Marine Corps Times he believed letting warrant officers fly the MQ-9 would help the Corps tap into its abundance of potential talent.
In comparison to commissioned officers, Barndollar said, warrant officers have more time to devote to their specialty, because they’re not tied up in as many administrative tasks. They generally cost less than commissioned officers, to boot.
“As the Marine Corps builds this new community, it is a golden opportunity to question some outdated paradigms,” Barndollar said.
Other services have also considered letting troops other than officers pilot uncrewed aircraft.
In the Navy, warrant officers operate the MQ-25 refueling drone. The Air Force let enlisted airmen fly the RQ-4 reconnaissance drone as part of a years-long experiment but announced in 2021 that it would walk back that policy.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.