What role will dual intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance/strike remotely piloted aircraft play in future conflicts? Will they be replaced with a more capable platform? 

MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper aircrew flew 351,000 hours and conducted more than 3,000 strikes in 2016, but "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," said Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, who served as commander of Air Combat Command until March. "We just have to have an opportunity to develop that." 

The Air Force has touted recent diverse mission sets the MQ-9 is performing in operations against the Islamic State group to include urban close air support, the first deployment of the GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition and two-ship approach, in which a lead aircraft accompanied by a second each provide the other with mutual support.

"I believe that the MQ-9 as a multi-role aircraft has a lot of untapped potential that you’re seeing play out in the urban close air support and some of these other mission sets we find them very successful on during Red Flag and weapons school integration sorties," Col. Case Cunningham, Commander of the 432nd Wing and 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, told C4ISRNET. "I think the MQ-9 has a lot of life."

There has been some buzz surrounding a follow-on to the Reaper for the past few years. The Air Force just retiredits fleet of MQ-1 Predator ISR/strike RPA; Air Force budget documents released last week indicate it does not have any in inventory for FY 2018. There is concern that the Reaper, with its radar profile and slow-moving nature, would be no match for a highly contested environment against a near peer or peer competitor with radar, anti-aircraft systems or fighter jets that can intercept them.

These platforms have operated in so-called permissive environments for the majority of their life cycle, playing a pivotal role in the overt and covert war on terror in the Middle East and South Asia. Some are quick to point out that this platform is performing operations in a highly contested airspace above Syria, which includes aircraft from various nations participating in the global anti-ISIS coalition as well as Russian and Syrian aircraft and surface-to-air missiles; however, it is not yet in direct competition with these systems.

To that end, Cunningham — who DoD in March announced was selected to Brig. Gen. and would move on to command the 18th Wing, Pacific Air Forces, Kadena Air Base in Japan — indicated how this platform might be employed in the future in these contested environments, pointing to an anecdote provided by the

Combined Forces Air Component commander

in an interview with the New York Timeslast week.

Lt. Gen.

Jeffrey Harrigian, Commander of Air Forces Central Command, explained that following the U.S. Tomahawk missile strike against a Syrian air field in retaliation for Syria's use of chemical weapons, U.S. forces were fearful of a potential retaliation from Syria or its allies. As such, Harrigian pulled conventional manned aircraft out of Syrian air space but kept armed RPA around Raqqa, Syria, its de facto capital, to keep pressure on ISIS.

"So the subtext of that statement is that while we pulled conventionally maned air craft out, in a contested and denied environment, we left armed drones in," Cunningham said. "So there’s this mantra like hey contested-denied, you’ve got to be stealth, you got to be this, you’ve got to be that — but there is a capability you get because you don’t have a human in the cockpit that can allow you potentially to take a little bit more risk in those kinds of environments."

"That’s got to be a consideration for those kinds of missions in those environments," Cunningham added.

Harrigian explained during a briefing with reporterslast week they are learning a lot from operations in other regions, such as Sirte, Libya, that can be applied to close air support in densely populated areas in Iraq. First lieutenants figured out how to do this in Libya recently, Lt. Gen.

Mark Nowland, deputy chief of staff for operations for the Air Force,

said in March. Describing a scenario, he said members of ISIS in Sirte had snipers atop big, tall buildings and snipers sitting in windows. Using a two-ship, one buddy lase approach — which provides a precise laser spot for laser guided bombs — the platform would lock on after launch, provide a thermobaric effect, hit the window, and kill the sniper in the window without taking down the building while supporting the ground force.

Another way the Reaper is being postured to survive in these environments is with upgrades. Cunningham noted that the Block 5 aircraft are soon to be fielded in combat, while the force currently flies the Block 1. The Block 5had some increased communications capabilities, some increased data link capabilities with respect to encryption that are of more use in contested and denied environments, Cunningham said, adding there are no plans for new aircraft.

Additionally, the Reaper is part of a system of systems. Cunningham cited Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein’s comments regarding 1 v. 1 platforms: How does the F-15 compare to the SU-35, or how does the F-22 compare to you pick the fighter? Cunningham asked. It’s not fighter verses fighter, but rather system versus systems, he added, "and that’s really what we’re taking away from the fight in Syria is this system approach to that fight."

Similarly, Nowland described how the Air Force employs a variety of capabilities to exploit the "holes" in so-called anti-access/area denial zones.

"When you think of anti-access aerial denial, people think domes. It’s not a dome, it’s Swiss cheese. There’s holes," he explained. Using a mix of capabilities from fifth-generation fighters to fourth-generation fighters to drones creates sensor fusion, he said. "So the question of an F-15 versus an F-16 in a European scenario on its own, neither one is going to do it. They’re both going to get shot down and die," Nowland said. "But in combination with a concept of operations that puts together electronic combat, that puts together fifth generation, fourth generation, timing, tempo, long range munitions, standoff munitions and puts it all together, it’s going to make it better."

While Reapers don’t have certain capabilities on them like radar warning receivers that tell operators they’re being targeted by other airplanes, "when you bring an entire force together and build that holistic picture of the battlespace, we’re learning that being integrated into that has a lot of synergistic effects," Cunningham said. Similarly, 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 Reaper will continue to have a role in future conflicts, especially in the counterterrorism fight. As many top officials concede, while near peer threat actors are becoming more aggressive, the force will never step away from the counterterrorism fight.

Cunningham described the MQ-9 serving in a multi-role capability. Concerning ISR, he said people tend to think of MQ-9s looking at full-motion video through a straw; instead, the Reaper will be part of an all-domain sensing grid funneling information to build battlespace awareness for combatant commanders.

Within this multi-role construct, he referenced Goldfein’s characterization of the 30-year war against violent extremism, noting that the Reaper’s capabilities — 21-hour sorties combined with strike — allow the force to rely more on the MQ-9 as a multi-role asset to fight the 30-year war as well as to buy readiness for the rest of the force to get ready to fight the more highly contested, highly denied fight.

This raises an important issue regarding cost and knowing the enemy. In a 2015 interview with the Combating Terrorism Center’s "Sentinel," Capt. Robert Newson, who served as the commander of Special Operations Command (Forward) in Yemen, wondered if the U.S. was pricing itself out of "small wars" against technologically inferior insurgents by using high-end assets such as fifth-generation F-22s.

"We just cannot afford to fight the number of engagements we need to using F-22s, F-35s, and other expensive weapons systems that are not necessary against this adversary," he said. "Why can’t we fly … armed tactical UAVs that can do a better job of supporting at a much lower price?"

Regarding the future of the platform, Cunningham said he expects "more utilization of the multi-role capability of the MQ-9 ... especially as we capitalize on the attack capability of the platform."

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

More In UAS