While the U.S. Air Force requested no funding for General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drones in fiscal 2022, the House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel’s (HAC-D) version of the FY 2022 Defense Appropriations Bill adds six Reapers for the service.

Overall, the bill would invest $351 million for 12 MQ-9s, including six requested by the U.S. Marine Corps for Medium Altitude Long Endurance-Tactical (MALE-T) close air support and communications. MALE-T is to provide “direct support to the Marine Littoral Regiment in peer-to-peer conflict,” including the provision of “stand-off sensing and Command, Control, Communication, and Computers capabilities,” per the Navy fiscal 2022 budget request.

The Marine Corps’ MALE-T stems from the 2006 “Guardian Angel” force protection policy instituted by then-Marine Lt. Gen. Jim Mattis for the First Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) in Iraq.

That same year, the Quadrennial Defense Review resulted in a requirement for a Special Operations Forces (SOF) “unmanned aerial vehicle squadron to provide organic capabilities”–a requirement that led to a MALE-T modification program under U.S. Special Operations Command and Air Force Materiel Command to support Air Force Combat Air Patrols by General Atomics’ MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9s to support SOF missions.

Under Mattis’ Guardian Angel policy, concealed Marines in I MEF with communications equipment would alert their fellows of imminent attacks by enemies so that Marines could rapidly destroy them.

HAC-D’s proposed add of six MQ-9 Reapers in fiscal 2022 for the Air Force follows remarks by Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the ranking member of HAC-D, who told Pentagon leaders on May 27 that “almost every combatant command has told this subcommittee that they need more, not less, MQ-9 access” (Defense Daily, May 27).

The Air Force’s fiscal 2022 budget, while not requesting any MQ-9s, revealed that the inventory of MQ-9s would increase from 330 in fiscal 2021 to 351 in fiscal 2022. The Air Force has said that the increase of 330 MQ-9s in fiscal 2021 to 351 in fiscal 2021 represents prior years’ MQ-9 buys coming into the Air Force inventory.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown has suggested that the MQ-9 and other non-stealthy drones, such as the Northrop Grumman [NOC] RQ-4 Global Hawk, will be of limited value in a conflict with China or Russia, and the service appears to be looking for follow-on, stealthy systems, such as the Lockheed Martin [LMT] RQ-170 or the Northrop Grumman RQ-180. Brown recently told lawmakers that he wants to ensure a smooth transition between the Block 40 Global Hawks, set to retire in 2025, and an unspecified classified follow-on system.

The Air Force has had four Block 20 RQ-4s, 20 Block 30s, and 10 Block 40s. The Air Force received congressional approval in fiscal 2021 to retire the Block 20s and is asking Congress to permit the service to divest the Block 30s in fiscal 2022, as part of the Air Force effort to retire 201 legacy aircraft to help fund a service requested $2.2 billion increase in research and development.

The Air Force has embarked on an effort to upgrade the MQ-9 with Multi-Domain Operation capabilities to counter China and Russia and remain relevant until the MQ-9’s expected retirement in 2035 (Defense Daily, Apr. 21). The upgrades are to include resistance to jamming and other interference with aircraft command and control; increased electronic power; an open architecture for the rapid insertion of new technology; upgrades to the MQ-9 electro-optical/infrared sensor; and the ability to carry new weapons.