The famed MQ-1 Predator and its larger and more capable cousin, MQ-9 Reaper, have been lauded by the Air Force as a successful platform since widely being adopted into military operations against non-state actors as part of the counterterrorism fight.
Part of the draw for these platforms are the dual intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance-strike capability they provide. Particularly, from an ISR perspective, the fact these devices are not limited by a pilot's endurance in a cockpit or the limited fuel capacity of manned platforms allows them to provide an "unblinking eye" above targets below.
In this vein, as Mark Mazzetti documents in his book, "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth," the CIA had eyes on the former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2000 from a Predator. But lacking the strike capability from this platform, officials in the Clinton White House declined to act kinetically as it would have taken six hours to go through the launch protocols for a Tomahawk missile. "The CIA had only two options," Mazzetti wrote. "Predict bin Laden's whereabouts six hours in advance or find a weapon that could hunt the al Qaeda leader and kill him immediately."
The Air Force, while on track to retire the Predator by 2018, is continuing to invest in the Reaper, purchasing 24 additional aircraft with overseas contingency operations funds, according to fiscal 2017 budget documents released in February. However, these slow-moving and relatively low-flying aircraft make them susceptible to advanced anti-aircraft batteries and radars employed by near-peer competitors in what are described as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environments.
With this continued investment by US armed forces, it's unclear how these platforms, successful in permissive environments, will be employed in more contested and complex airspaces. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has saidonly "50 percent of our combat air forces have that degree of readiness" against higher-end threats such as major nation-state competitors.
Others have also asserted that the U.S. air monopoly is eroding.
"The era of strategic monopoly in the air — an anomaly held for the last 25 years that enabled a generation of Airmen to focus almost exclusively on cross-domain force application in support of land warfare — is coming to an end," a paperpublished by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies assessed. "The Air Force must now articulate an operating concept reflecting the loss of monopoly in the air domain, but also addressing the interplay of the multiple competitive domains of air, space, and cyberspace."
"As we go forward, the question is: How do I employ this unmanned component in a non-permissive environment?" Kenneth Callicutt, the director of capability and resource integration for US Strategic Command, said at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference in September.
In a general sense, most officials and practitioners are saying the force is still working through this challenge and trying to adopt lessons learned for operations in more contested environments.
"I think we’re still sort of learning — how do you take the advantages that you’ve achieved in this network, in the permissive [environment of southwest Asia], and sort of be able to take it into the non-permissive?" said Maj. Gen. Jeffery Newell, the Air Force's director of strategy, concepts and assessments and deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements. "I’m not sure that I have great answers for you other than we see the value of it, we see that it is forever a part of how our Air Force operates, and I think you’re going to see that us [exploiting] the advantages of a persistent ISR network and [applying] it to an A2/AD environment will be a challenge for us that will continue."
Maj. Gen. Thomas Deale, director of operations at Air Combat Command, told C4ISRNET during the Air, Space and Cyber Conference that it’s clear MQ-9s are more conducive to a permissive environment — operations in more contested environments are "an area we’ve got to get into."
Deale was also sure to note that "from both a capabilities and an employment standpoint, we do have capabilities with our RQ-170s for that contested environment," referencing the RQ-170 Sentinel stealth remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), what the Air Force calls its unmanned aerial vehicle, which has been nicknamed " the Beast of Kandahar."
However, this is not capable of strike capabilities, something he said the force must continue to have — dual strike and ISR platforms. "What I don’t want to do is drive our force to the point where we’ll be able to see the adversary in real time and in color HD but not have any strike capacity in order to affect it. We’ve got to maintain that strike capacity," he said, harkening back to Mazzetti’s anecdote.
Others, however, have asserted that these platforms are already operating in contested environments, and are doing very well. "Right now in [Operation Inherent Resolve] we are operating in a contested environment — a very complex environment as you know from what we’re seeing in the news with the diplomatic efforts of the Russians," Lt. Col Landon, chief of MQ-1 and MQ-9 operations in the persistent attack and reconnaissance division at Air Combat Command, whose full name was withheld for security reasons, told C4ISRNET in a recent interview. "The fact is that, yes, there is value and we are applying these lessons learned in the current combat environment."
The conflict in Syria, however, is not necessarily reflective of future contested operating environments as, while the airspace is complex with a variety of actors all with different, and in some cases, conflicting goals, there are not active attempts to limit or prevent U.S. air operations. For lack of a better term, Paul Scharre, senior fellow and director of the 20YY Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security, described the environment in Syria as semi-permissive. While there are radar and anti-aircraft systems, the U.S. is not directing against them. Scharre did, however, tell C4ISRNET that the airspace over Syria is much more complex than Iraq and Afghanistan where these unmanned platforms have operated over the past 15 years.
"Today, the MQ-9 is flying in a contested environment where surface-to-air and air-to-air threats must be mitigated through the holistic integration of Air Force assets and capabilities," an Air Force spokeswoman told C4ISRNET in an email. "MQ-1s and MQ-9s have demonstrated an ability to sustain battle damage from low caliber [anti-aircraft artillery] and survive to complete their missions."
Commander of Air Combat Command Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle told C4ISRNET at the Air, Space and Cyber Conference that the MQ-9 could be more capable than previously thought. "I mean, when we get a little bit of breathing room and get some dwell time I think we’ll find the MQ-9s are significantly more capable than we’ve used them in the past. We just have to have an opportunity to develop that," he said, noting the lack of down time for both these platforms and pilots, as they are constantly employed in global operations, puts a strain on the workforce.
When pressed about the Reaper’s capabilities against anti-aircraft or radar, Carlisle said: "Well it depends. … There’s a lot of things that are going to go into how we make those decisions."
"The decision of where and how to employ the MQ-9, or any asset, will depend upon the specifics associated with the required operation," the Air Force spokeswoman said. "The MQ-9 strike and ISR capabilities will be used when it makes the most sense as part of the overall air package for each mission.
"While the slow speeds of the aircraft prevent them from ‘pushing’ with the package, the MQ-1 and MQ-9 act as force multipliers by adding in elements of command and control, strike, and ISR to include nomination of targets, collateral damage estimates, and strike integration for massing kinetic effects.
"The MQ-9 is a multi-role asset and as such, Air Force investment and sustainment of the platform continues to adapt to changing battlefield conditions to ensure combat capability across the full range of its mission sets. The [Air Force] will continue development of advanced capabilities for the MQ-9 to increase its effectiveness in both permissive and non-permissive environments," the spokeswoman said.
New, or previously undisclosed, tactics being employed for these platforms include a two-ship approach, described by Landon as a lead aircraft accompanied by a second, each providing the other with mutual support. He said these types of operations for Reapers are not widely known.
"I think that people will not be aware of the fact that the MQ-9 can operate as a two-ship and it is happening in limited amounts in combat," he said. "We’re finding in some places that one aircraft is not enough to meet the requirements. In some situations we’ll have two airplanes tasked to the same area on similar missions. And that’s when we take … sensors being like [
Multi-Spectral Targeting System]
or the synthetic aperture radar . ..to mass those for an effect or . ..mass weapons for an effect."
This two-ship notion "would be like an F-16 — you have a lead, you have a number two — they operate two-ship operations for mutual support of one another and then in the MQ-9/MQ-1 world we’ve taken that mutual support construct and changed it to or have grown it to achieve effects on the battlefield faster, whether those are kinetic or non-kinetic effects," he said.
Scharre told C4ISRNET that the Reaper could be used as a suitable jamming platform from the air in future contested environments. While noting that this platform does not possess any stealth capability, giving it a significant operational disadvantage in A2/AD environments, this would be irrelevant if it were to serve as a jamming platform given that this role would tip adversaries off to its presence immediately. Scharre said there have been demonstrations and tests to this effect outfitting jamming pods aboard the aircraft.
He also noted that Reapers could serve as "missile trucks" for fifth-generation aircraft, which have limited magazine capacities given their weapons are stored inside the aircraft. While not as fast as fifth-generation fighter jets, Reapers could still be effective in this role standing off farther back, he said.
Scharre said that allowing fifth-generation pilots to control Reapers from their cockpit on these types of missions would also solve one of the Reaper’s main deficiencies in contested environments, that they are wholly reliant on secure communication links. If jammed, these systems don’t possess enough autonomy to carry out a complex mission, he said. By allowing pilots to control the aircraft, it shortens the communications link.
This concept is in line with the Loyal Wingman program, which seeks to accompany manned and unmanned platforms in the air. Some of the unmanned platforms can also be unmanned F-16s, which would be able to keep pace in the air with these faster fighter jets.
While the MQ-9 could be useful against a near peer, it would not be the primary or even the desired platform, Scharre said, though, since the Air Force has them and is continuing to buy more, they might as well use them.
There might also be cultural challenges and impediments for adopting these systems in future, operational constructs, Scharre said. The cultural schisms between RPA pilots and conventional aircraft pilots has been documented. Within the larger Air Force community, he said, there has not been much interest in unmanned aircraft. Providing a historical comparison, Scharre said the technology for unmanned systems is much like the early stages of aircraft in World War I in that the RPA operators know the potential of these systems but others within the force don’t necessarily think about this in a broad sense.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.