Support: The Ground Support Grind

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April 4, 2019: The U.S. Air Force has assigned an MQ-9 Reaper UAV forward detachment of about 50 air force and contractor personnel at a Polish airbase. This detachment enables several MQ-9s to operate on a sustained basis from the Polish air base. MQ-9 can also “surge” (operate more frequently for a short period of time) and several more MQ-9s can be brought in to help with that. But getting additional maintainers is more difficult. Since most MQ-9s serve overseas the advance detachment personnel get less “dwell time” at their home base than any other Air Force personnel. This is especially hard for married maintainers, who tend to be the most senior and experienced. Even airmen on their first enlistment tend to reenlist less frequently if they are MQ-9 maintainers. Their skills are valued in the civilian economy and the air force has had to pay large reenlistment bonuses and hire lots of former (retired or did not reenlist) maintainers as contractors to maintain operations. The Air Force has been training more MQ-9 maintainers but will still be dependent on contractors and low dwell time for existing maintainers for another year or so.

While most air force personnel currently spend only a quarter or third of their time overseas, the Reaper forward detachment personnel often have wartime schedules and spend about half their time overseas. Unlike the Army, where troops went overseas for a year (or more) at a time, each Air Force deployment is usually three months. It can be longer but that is avoided as the Air Force has found that the shorter deployment time is far more tolerable than longer ones.

From the beginning, MQ-9 UAV units were based in two places at once. The pilots and sensor operators are at an Air Force base in the United States and operate the MQ-9 via satellite. Also back in the United States are the information processing and distribution personnel who analyze (with the help of computers and special software) thousands of hours of video and other electronic information generated each time an MQ-9 goes out. Sent overseas with the MQ-9s go the ground support crew. This includes the maintainers for MQ-9 mechanical and electronic equipment as well as refueling and rearming specialists and local launch and recovery personnel who taxi the MQ-9 out for takeoff and bring it back to the hanger for maintenance or to a refueling point if it is going up again. While simpler machines than jet aircraft, the sub-sonic, propeller-driven Reaper is full of electronics and computer-driven systems. A Reaper not only has complex flight control systems (all remotely controlled) it also has satellite and local (for sending data to ground troops or other aircraft) communications. MQ-9s are cheaper to operate (under $5,000 per flight hour) but they fly 5-10 times more hours a year than jets. In effect, it costs more to keep an MQ-9 operational for a year than an F-16 jet fighter.

The U.S. Air Force has nearly 200 MQ-9 Reaper UAVs but only about a hundred are assigned to squadrons. The latest model is the Block 5 and these cost about $13 million each. Most MQ-9s now in service are Block 5. In 2020 the new ER version will start to replace Block 5, which itself began arriving in 2012. The ER version made its first flight in early 2016. Reaper ER is an upgrade of the original MQ-9 design that allows longer endurance (up to 35 hours) by carrying two fuel tanks (one under each wing) that use a new fuel management system that ensures fuel is taken from the main fuel tank and the two external tanks in such a way that the aircraft does not become unbalanced. The ER version also has the engine modified so that it can generate more power on takeoff, enabling the MQ-9 to achieve heavier takeoff weight. The ER version is also getting 20 percent longer wings. Since the wings already carry fuel, this helps increase fuel and endurance to about 42 hours. The air force asked for the Reaper ER to be developed and delivered quickly which in this case was actually done. That was unusual in the military procurement world. Older MQ-9s can be upgraded to ER partially (by equipping a MQ-9 with the two fuel tanks and fuel management software) or completely (by installing the larger wings and new engine).

The original MQ-9 Reaper looked like the earlier 1.2 ton MQ-1 Predator but was larger. The 4.7 ton MQ-9 is an 11.6 meters (36 foot) long aircraft with a 21.3 meters (66 foot) wingspan. It has six hard points and can carry 682 kg (1,500 pounds) of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, or two 227 kg (500 pound) smart bombs (laser or GPS guided). Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance was originally 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in many situations. By 2016 the U.S. Air Force had over 120 MQ-9s and Reapers had flown over two million hours. By 2019 the MQ-9 total flight hours increased by over 50 percent.

The MQ-9s stationed in Poland will assist Poland in keeping an eye on Russian forces that often operate close to the 210 kilometer long border the two nations share (because of the Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic). There is also the 418 kilometer border with Belarus, a close ally of Russia.

 


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