A U.S. Air Force officer revealed on September 18, 2018, that a MQ-9 Reaper drone scored a first-of-its-kind unmanned air-to-air kill of a smaller target drone in a training exercise late last year. Some are now calling this a turning point in the history of aerial warfare, as unmanned aircraft may soon be armed to take out other drones and aircraft.

"Something that's unclassified but not well known, we recently in November [2017] … launched an air-to-air missile against a maneuvering target that scored a direct hit," said the officer in question, Colonel Julian Cheater, commander of the 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

"It was an MQ-9 versus a drone with a heat-seeking air-to-air missile, and it was direct hit … during a test," he told Military.com in an interview at the Air Force Associaton’s Air, Space, and Cyber Conference in Washington, DC.

Cheater did not disclose any details of the exercise, neither the type of target, nor the weapon the Reaper used to shoot it down. Popular Mechanics, for instance, suggests that the air-to-air missile carried by the MQ-9 Reaper was likely a FIM-92 Stinger missile. The Drive, on the other hand, writes it is likely that the missile was an AIM-9X Sidewinder.

The Air Force regularly shoots down target drones, and this was not the first time that an unmanned drone was involved in air-to-air combat. However, this exercise was the first time a drone shot down another aerial vehicle.

The significance of the test is that it proved that an unmanned vehicle like the MQ-9 has the ability to conduct air-to-air combat, much like manned aircraft such as an F-15 Eagle or F-22 Raptor.

In fact, Air Force’s Air Combat Command has been exploring ways to arm the Reapers with air-to-air weaponry since 2003. At the time, the Air Force was preparing to issue a contract to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems for the unmanned aircraft, now retired MQ-1 Predators, Arstechnica.com explains.

However, it took some time as well as overcoming some technical challenges to get to where the MQ-9 Reaper now stands at.

According to the information on the U.S. Air Force’s website, it proposed the MQ-9 Reaper system in response to the Department of Defense directive to support initiatives of overseas contingency operations. It is designed to attack “time-sensitive targets with persistence and precision, to destroy or disable those targets".

As the specifications indicate, the MQ-9 Reaper is larger, more heavily armed version of the original MQ-1 Predator drone. It can carry a payload of 3,750 pounds and is equipped with a combination of AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles and GBU-12 Paveway II and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions.