Despite being employed for over two decades, the Air Force is still grappling with questions about its fleet of remotely piloted aircraft.
The service is currently transitioning its fleet of MQ-1 Predators to all MQ-9 Reapers, which one Air Force commander, speaking Tuesday at the Air Force Association’s annual conference, said will be complete in March 2018.
Col Julian Cheater, commander of the 432nd Wing, said the MQ-9 is a multi-role asset. It can switch from its intelligence mission to a strike mission if needed, and back.
However, the question for the force, he noted, is whether these systems should have multiple sensors on them.
That becomes a challenge, he added noting that there’s been discussions about employment of a smaller, lower end platform that is not armed and is outfitted with the same sensors as the MQ-9 to just do intelligence collection.
The Air Force two years ago released its small unmanned aerial system road map outlining several different concepts for how the service, which currently employs large, strategic, theater-wide assets, can leverage much smaller systems.
This plan and many of its concepts, however, are still predecisional.
In terms of other changes ahead for the platform, Cheater said that an automated take off and landing capability — which currently exists on the Army variant, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle — is about two years away.
Cheater is also trying to get all Reapers within the service to the same variant and same software baseline to be better aligned with Air Force Special Operations Command, which runs 12 of the Air Force’s total 60 combat air patrols.
Cheater also hit on a common refrain within the RPA community: the need for more dwell time. This will the force to evolve training. The force is good at close air support in urban environments as seen in Sirte, Libya, Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq, but they need to sharpen their skills for other operations, such as contested environments, combat search and rescue and maritime interdiction.