As the U.S. military shifts its attention from the Middle East to the Pacific, it’s looking to drones to further its reach over the vast blue expanse.

Two Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drones flew from the U.S. mainland to Hawaii for the first time earlier this month, and they have been flying daily sorties at sea and over the Big Island’s Pohakuloa Traing Area as part of Exercise ACE Reaper.

It’s an introduction of the “hunter-killer” drones to the islands. As many as six of the aircraft are expected to be stationed permanently at the Marine base in Kaneohe as part of a major force redesign that’s starting on Oahu. But the Marines said that they don’t plan to arm their drones in Hawaii — at least not now.

“The MQ-9 for a long time has been the most requested asset in the Central Command in the Middle East theater of operations,” Col. Ryan Keeney, commander of the 49th Wing at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, said Monday. “We know that as we start moving away from the Middle East, that we’re going to be required to be in many different places on a rapid timeline.”

An Air Force crew prepares an MQ-9 Reaper for operations at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay during exercise ACE Reaper. Kevin Knodell/Civil Beat/2021

Keeney spoke in a conference room in a well-used hanger at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, while outside his airmen prepared to launch one of the Reapers for a training sortie.

The monthlong exercise, which ends on Oct. 8, focuses on bringing drones into the Air Force’s strategy of “Agile Combat Employment” — or ACE — which has included deployments of aircraft and troops to islands across the Pacific to spread out forces to make them harder for Chinese missiles to attack. It’s the third iteration of the exercise, but the first to involve Hawaii.

Three Reapers are participating. One flew directly from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada in a flight that 9th Attack Squadron commander Lt. Col. Jaime Olivares said took about 13.5 hours. A second flew from Holloman — making a brief pit stop in California to refuel — and a third arrived on Oahu by plane. No live munitions were used.

Though the military already uses drones in Hawaii, this is the first time the Reapers have flown in the islands. The various branches operate a variety of small drones for reconnaissance operations. The Reaper would be the largest, with a 66-foot wingspan and the ability to travel much higher and farther.

Militaries around the world began experimenting with the use of remote-controlled aircraft as early as World War I, but it wasn’t until the Vietnam War that they began to see serious applications. By the 2000s, the U.S. military had come to see broad potential in the drones, which can be controlled remotely by pilots located far away thanks to a series of satellite networks.

For example, the Reapers in Hawaii are being controlled by troops at Holloman, where the military trains all of its Reaper pilots.

However, the Pacific poses new challenges for the military’s drone force. Keeney said that the military has become used to operating drones from large bases in the Middle East for years. In the Pacific they’re looking at the drones hopping between far-flung islands potentially operating from multiple makeshift runways.

“A lot of our equipment was sized to go to a main operating base where we would be at for weeks, months or years,” said Keeney. “What if you just need to be there for a day or a week? How much equipment do you need? What maintainers do you need?”

While the drones are considered “unmanned” aircraft, they still rely on crews below to operate, repair, fuel and launch them.

Keeney said that the Air Force is looking at training “multi-capable airmen” to be able to work on different aircraft from a variety of airfields across the region. “We have an ability to be in multiple places so that we’re not locked into one main operating base,” he explained. 

Olivares said the exercise had so far been a success.

“What we’ve been doing here specifically is taking a five-person team to launch an aircraft when it comes back and land, service it and take it off,” said Olivares. “Our goal was to do that in less than an hour and so far we’ve exceeded that greatly.”

‘Surveillance And Reconnaissance’

Ocean and island hopping operations are relatively new tasks for the MQ-9. Olivares said that they have been flying two to three sorties a day in the exercise — and drone operators in New Mexico have a direct line to the Marines on the ground at Pohakuloa to coordinate. 

“They’re talking to the Marines and doing close air support over the Big Island, things they haven’t gotten to do before, which ultimately makes them a better trained student,” said Olivares.

An MQ-9 Reaper drone takes off from an airfield at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay. Kevin Knodell/Civil Beat/2021

The Reaper is the successor to the MQ-1 Predator, which was originally designed just as a scout but was later upgraded to fire Hellfire missiles. The Reaper was specifically designed as a “hunter-killer” drone. But the Marines said that they don’t plan to arm their drones in Hawaii — at least not now.

“Our service envisions distributed teams of Marines that can hunt an adversary’s ships visually or electronically using every sensor and capability available to them,” the Marines said in a statement. “Our current operational vision for the MQ-9 here in Hawaii does not call for arming Marine Corps MQ-9s at this time, but rather using them for surveillance and reconnaissance.”

Drones were a central tool in secretive military and CIA counterterrorism operations that relied on them for surveillance and targeted killings. But the precision of those operations has been hotly debated.

During the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan, a drone struck what the military initially said was a suicide bomber after Islamic State militants killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 150 Afghan civilians in a bombing near the airport in Kabul.

But the Pentagon later admitted the strike actually killed 10 civilians and no militants

Even as the war in Afghanistan has ended, tensions have escalated in the Pacific as the United States vies with China for influence in the region. The Marine Corps has been reorganizing its force with an emphasis on island and coastal fighting.

“We’re training Marines right now at Holloman Air Force Base,” said Keeney. “And I’m fully convinced the Marines, when they get their MQ-9s, are going to absolutely love them.”

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