Sen. Kelly Suggests MQ-9 Could Be of Use Against Higher Tech Adversaries

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) suggested on May 10 that the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper could provide significant intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR)/strike benefits to U.S. and allied forces in the future, even against higher technology adversaries.
“The Air Force has been reluctant to invest in upgrading the platform and proposes to retire it, potentially in 2035, even as the demand from combatant commanders for the system remains high,” Kelly said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to hear from Army Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence.
The Air Force’s “argument has been that the platform’s not survivable in a China-Russia scenario,” Kelly said. “I think it’s pretty clear that it would be survivable in a Russian scenario now.”
Russia has been unable to achieve air superiority since the country’s Feb. 24 assault on Ukraine, due to Russia’s lack of air campaign expertise and to Ukraine’s use of man portable air defense systems, surface-to-air missiles, and drones.
“I have been the beneficiary of MQ-9 operations for the last 20 years,” Berrier said on May 10 in response to a question from Kelly on whether the Reaper and other fielded ISR platforms will be of continued relevance, particularly in “grey zone” information operations short of war.
“It’s an outstanding platform,” Berrier said of the Reaper. “It’s done great things. With increasing threats emanating from China and their ability to reach out and touch those kinds of things, I totally understand why the Air Force wants to divest of that platform. The efficacy of that in the coming years in low-intensity conflict/counterterrorism operations, it will always be useful in a low air defense kind of environment, but in a high-end environment, I don’t think it’s very survivable.”
Kelly then said that Russia’s vaunted high-end air defense systems have not stopped Ukrainian air operations. “We have looked at the Russian surface-to-air missile threat environment as high-end,” Kelly said. “Turns out, like a lot of things, day one of the war is much different than day 60, or 90, or 180 of any conflict so I’m concerned that, not only this platform, but sometimes we look at divesting platforms that could provide incredible utility further along in the [conflict] timeline.”

The Air Force’s fiscal 2023 budget requests the offload of 100, about one-third, of the service’s MQ-9s for another government organization (Defense Daily, March 29).

The transfer of the 100 MQ-9s would come on top of Air Force plans to retire 150 aircraft in fiscal 2023, including 33 Block 20 Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-22s, eight Northrop Grumman [NOC] Joint STARS, 21 A-10s, 15 Boeing [BA] E-3 AWACS, 13 Boeing KC-135 tankers, 10 Lockheed Martin C-130Hs, and 50 Raytheon [RTX] T-1 Jayhawk trainers.

In March, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, broached supplying Ukraine with General Atomics Gray Eagles and MQ-9 Reapers and said that training Ukrainians in the use of the drones for strikes/reconnaissance and sustainment of the drones would only take two to three weeks (Defense Daily, March 17).


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