DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The fate of the MQ-9 Reaper has once again entered public debate after senior U.S. defense officials confirmed Houthi militants had downed one of the drones over international waters off the coast of Yemen on Nov. 8.
In recent years, experts have questioned the sustainability of flying such expensive aircraft in contested environments, where less costly countermeasures are able to target them.
For example, in 2021, now-retired acting Air Force Secretary John Roth sought to curtail procurement of the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems-made drone in the fiscal 2022 budget.
Earlier this month, Brandon Tseng, the president of drone and software firm Shield AI, said the MQ-9 is “too expensive and too slow to regenerate to continue operating within range of surface to air missiles.”
“MQ-9 is a great aircraft, I’ve used it. But for the future fight, it’s role needs to be re-defined to quarterbacking intelligent teams of attritable aircraft,” he wrote on LinkedIn. “And this doesn’t just apply to MQ-9; it includes MQ-4, MQ-1, P-8, SH-60, etc.”
And an article from earlier this year on the U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute website noted “the MQ-9 Reaper may not be survivable in an environment characterized by large-scale combat operations.”
“There is a decision to be made,” wrote Liam Collins, who served as a defense adviser to Ukraine from 2016 to 2018. “Should the US military field more survivable UAVs — ones capable of conducting defensive maneuvers — or invest in smaller ones that it does not mind losing?”
The article was in response to a March 2023 incident that saw a Russian fighter jet force down a U.S. Reaper over the Black Sea, after initially damaging its propeller. The interception ultimately “resulted in a crash and complete loss” of the aircraft, Air Force Gen. James Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Africa, said in a statement.
Asked about the acquisition process for building — and replacing — these systems, an official with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems said that, “with a hot production line, we can build one in three to eight months.”
“But combat loss and attrition are built into the [U.S. Air Force] order scheme. Some amount of loss is expected,” C. Mark Brinkley, senior director of communications with the firm, told Defense News at the Dubai Airshow this week.
The war in Ukraine has shown that successful battlefield outcomes are possible by using large quantities of low-tech and cheap weapons, rather than relying on fewer, more expensive drones.
But Brinkley pushed back at this assessment.
“There are companies out there that want you to believe you can replace the capability of a Reaper or [MQ-9B] SeaGuardian with a 100-pound stomp rocket that can carry 25 pounds for 10 hours. The only catch is they would need a billion dollars to invent some magical artificial intelligence to make them relevant,” he said. “Even if that AI existed today and you could swarm 50 of them together, your payload and endurance would be 25% of the MQ-9B. So don’t tell me that’s the future.”
To increase the Reaper’s survivability, Brinkley recommended the integration of air-to-air missiles and an early warning radar to “radically change the situation” and reduce harassment opportunities.
This echoed a similar recommendation made by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Lawrence Stutzriem, who advised the Pentagon to fund the integration of a self-protection capability on the Reaper — something the department has yet to do.
Dave Alexander, the president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, offered two ways to respond to the Reaper’s vulnerabilities in contested areas.
“You either complain about it,” he told Defense News at the show, “or do something about it.”
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.