MQ-9 Reaper drone lands on a highway for the first time

U.S. Air Force photo

Exercise Agile Chariot, held by the USAF Special Operations Command (AFSOC), saw an MQ-9 Reaper drone, an MC-130J Commando II, two A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, and two MH-6 Little Birds land on Highways 287 and 789 between April 30 and May 2, 2023. 

The drills were meant to test the capabilities of the US Air Force to conduct dispersed operations. 

“The requirement here was clear: how do we get after Agile Combat Employment and hone the skills required to win a near-peer competitor fight,” said Lieutenant General Tony Bauernfeind, AFSOC Commander. “This exercise is a great example of what happens when Air Commandos come together to solve problems and test what we will see in future fights.” 

AFSOC made history during Exercise Agile Chariot by successfully landing an MQ-9 Reaper drone on a highway for the first time. This demonstrated that the MQ-9 could be employed operationally without the need for specific infrastructure. 

“The MQ-9 can now operate around the world via satellite launch and recovery without traditional launch and recovery landing sites and maintenance packages,” said Lieutenant Colonel Brian Flanigan, 2nd Special Operations Squadron director of operations. “Agile Chariot showed once again the leash is off the MQ-9 as the mission transitions to global strategic competition.” 

Exercise Agile Chariot included establishing a Forward Area Refueling Point around the MC-130J Commando II and executing what is known as “Integrated Combat Turnarounds,” a rapid aircraft recovery and relaunching technique that optimizes the turnaround time with minimal infrastructure. 

The exercise involved MC-130J crews rapidly refueling two A-10 Warthogs from the Michigan Air National Guard’s 127th Wing and simulated refueling with the MQ-9 Reaper. 

“FARP exercises, which involve refueling with the aircraft engines running, allows units to train for scenarios where established refueling points may not be accessible or when air-to-air refueling is not possible,” the 1st Special Operations Wing explained. 

(U.S. Air Force photo)

What is Agile Combat Employment? 

The Agile Combat Employment (ACE) doctrine means pilots and technicians are capable of quickly dispersing across the country if their home base becomes compromised.  

Dispersed operations allow an air force in wartime to complicate enemy targeting by multiplying operating locations and using civilian airfields or improvised road bases. With the looming return of high-intensity warfare, and likely observant of the situation in Ukraine, Western armed forces found renewed interest in this Cold War-era concept. 

In October 2022, Finland closed one of its major highways so that the Finnish Air Force could use a section to test its ability to operate from improvised road bases.  

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