What if the Reaper Drone Became a Fighter Plane?

 In Infrastructure, Air, Forces & Capabilities

Key point Weapons sys­tems are con­stant­ly upgrad­ed. Here is how the Reaper drone could take on enemy air­craft.

The combat-tested Air Force Reaper drone can attack ter­ror­ists, destroy enemy tanks and target fixed infra­struc­ture with pre­ci­sion-guided Hellfire missiles. It can even find high-value tar­gets and quick­ly net­work war­zone video and data to deci­sion makers on the ground. But what about air-to-air combat? Welcome to the future. The Reaper is about to come a fight­er plane.

This first appeared ear­li­er and is being repub­lished due to reader inter­est.

The MQ‑9 Reaper has now suc­cess­ful­ly destroyed a drone cruise mis­sile target with the well-known and highly effec­tive AIM-9X pre­ci­sion air-to-air mis­sile. The AIM-9X fires from the F-35 as well as the F-22 and has in recent years been upgrad­ed with improved pre­ci­sion-guid­ance tech­nolo­gies and “off bore­sight” tar­get­ing, enabling pilots to destroy enemy tar­gets behind the aircraft. This is quite sig­nif­i­cant, as “off-bore­sight” tech­nol­o­gy can actu­al­ly guide the AIM ‑9X to turn around and change course while in-flight using a pilot’s helmet-mount­ed cueing system. This mas­sive­ly expands the Reaper’s target enve­lope. 

“Sept. 3, 2020, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The MQ‑9 suc­cess­ful­ly employed a live air-to-air test of an AIM-9X Block 2 mis­sile against a target BQM-167 drone sim­u­lat­ing a cruise mis­sile,” an Air Force report said. 

Engineering a Reaper for air-to-air combat mis­sions does seem to rep­re­sent a sen­si­ble and tech­ni­cal­ly advanced evo­lu­tion of the plat­form, great­ly expand­ing its mis­sion purview. Armed with an AIM-9X, a Reaper can per­form new offen­sive or defen­sive oper­a­tions by virtue of using the mis­sile as an “inter­cep­tor” stop­ping approach­ing enemy cruise missiles or an offen­sive attack against enemy air­craft. 

Given these pos­si­bil­i­ties, it seems quite likely that, should the weapon and surveillance systems be inte­grat­ed, a Reaper could use its long-range, high-fideli­ty cam­eras to iden­ti­fy an enemy fighter jet, cargo air­craft or even a lower-alti­tude bomber. After doing so, the Reaper could direct­ly destroy it, when com­mand­ed by a human deci­sion-maker, with­out having to send details to anoth­er attack asset. Not only does this decrease laten­cy but it also of course mas­sive­ly reduces sensor-to-shooter time

While engag­ing in dog­fight­ing or high-speed aerial maneuvering may not be super likely for a Reaper, adding these abil­i­ties will be impor­tant given that drones will soon be oper­at­ed from the cock­pit of a manned F‑22 or F‑35. This tactical possibility even fur­ther expands the mis­sion enve­lope as a for­ward-oper­at­ing Reaper could be direct­ed to test enemy air defens­es, con­duct sur­veil­lance in high-risk areas under enemy fire and in some cases fire weapons when direct­ed by pilots in the manned air­craft. 

Adding the AIM-9X also fur­ther adds to the Air Force’s long-stand­ing plan to increase mis­sion pos­si­bil­i­ties and new weapons to the Reaper. In recent years, the Air Force has added new fuel tanks to the drone as well as new tech­nol­o­gy enabling fire-con­trol and man­age­ment of dif­fer­ent weapons. 

The Reaper will now fires the AIM-9X in addi­tion to the AGM-114 Hellfire mis­sile, a 500-pound laser-guided weapon called the GBU-12 Paveway II, and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAMs. These are free-fall bombs engineered with a GPS and Inertial Navigation Systems guid­ance kit.

Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn pre­vi­ous­ly served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army — Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air mil­i­tary spe­cial­ist at nation­al TV net­works. He has appeared as a guest mil­i­tary expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. This first appeared ear­li­er and is being repub­lished due to reader inter­est.
 
Image: Reuters

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