History Hour: Evolution of the combat RPA
In the 1980s, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency added modern-day technology to the decades old idea of using remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) for reconnaissance purposes.
As a result the US Air Force immediately purchased a long-endurance RPA called the GNAT 750, resulting in the creation, production and development of the RQ-1 Predator of the early 1990s. By 1996, operators were flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions over the Balkans, providing an eye in the sky during a period of unrest.
The RQ-1 evolved into the lethal and precise MQ-1 Predator, which provides persistent attack and reconnaissance capabilities to combatant commanders around the world. But the RQ-1, as a first iteration of a modern RPA, needed changes.
An MQ-1 Predator sits on the flightline at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, 8th of December 2016 (image: USAF)
“In the RQ-1 we didn’t even have a turbo engine; it was a [naturally aspirated] Rotax 912,” said Chief Master Sgt. Christopher, the 726th Operations Group chief enlisted manager. “So, the first advancement was really with the Rotax 914 turbocharged engine.”
The chief also said he started flying, the community deployed with the full squadron and flew by line of sight, and eventually received a laser-enabled multi-spectral targeting system. The MTS allows Predator operators to integrate with other aircraft to laser designate targets and directly assist troops on the ground.
The most effective addition was a weapons capability that was implemented in the early 2000s. The Air Force retrofitted the platform with weapons pylons and modified the AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank missiles to accommodate the newly modified aircraft and thus, the MQ-1 Predator was created.
During this time Creech Air Force Base in Nevada was known as Indian Springs Auxiliary Airfield, with only three squadrons supporting Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. They provided ISR capabilities while educating the Army on its own capabilities.
As the ground forces became more familiar with having an MQ-1 overhead, the airframe became sought out for its existing capabilities such as raid overwatch, strikes, combat search and rescue and Remote Operations Vehicle Enhanced Receiver, which is the ability to send an MQ-1’s video feed to a tablet used by ground forces.
The MQ-1 was also equipped to perform remote split operations, which allows the aircraft to fly overseas from stateside locations.
Even with these capabilities, the ever-evolving battlespace environment determined that a more advanced RPA was needed. Thus, the MQ-9 Reaper was introduced in 2007 with the standup of the 432nd Wing. The MQ-9 is bigger, has more power and carries more munitions than an MQ-1, making it a true attack platform.
“Bringing on anything new is exciting but the capabilities that the MQ-9 brought were phenomenal,” Christopher said. “Going from the speed of an MQ-1 to the MQ-9, bringing in larger targeting pods so now we can see at a higher fidelity from a longer distance and higher altitude, and increasing payload capacity from two Hellfires to four and the option to carry two 500-pound bombs is pretty [amazing].”
MQ-9 Reaper (image: USAF)
The addition of the MQ-9 increased the demand for more missions, which required more personnel and squadrons, resulting in the wing’s continual growth. The growth was so exponential, the MQ-1 and MQ-9 flew a combined 1 million flight hours by 2011, then 2 million hours two short years later in 2013.
The MQ-1 and MQ-9 community has tripled the amount of active-duty flying squadrons, created the addition of a second active-duty operations group, activated the first Reserve operations group and added numerous National Guard and special operations command flying squadrons. Combined, the community flies 60 combat lines 24/7 to deliver persistent attack and reconnaissance.
The mission continues to evolve as the Air Force has begun the transition to an all MQ-9 force.
A single supply line will mitigate equipment for two different aircraft and streamline training for maintainers, pilots and sensor operators to a single airframe.
Training personnel, collecting information and neutralizing enemies are important tasks. However to some, the most rewarding task is keeping the troops on the ground safe.
The MQ-1 and MQ-9 enterprise has seen great success in a relatively short amount of time. According to Christopher, it has just scratched the surface of remotely piloted capabilities.
While the future is yet to come, there is no doubt the MQ-1 and MQ-9 force has changed the game in terms of warfighting. The tenacious attack and reconnaissance capabilities continue to dominate close air support, battlespace awareness and other mission sets requiring the unique abilities of the combat RPA and its operators.