Predators, Reapers and Gray Eagles

The California Air National Guard has recently employed its General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Incorporated (GA-ASI) MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to assist fire-fighting efforts in Northern California.

From the California Air Guard’s 163rd Attack Wing at March Air Reserve Base near Riverside California, the Reapers provided full-motion video (electro-optical and infrared) and ground-imaging synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data to support California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) efforts on the ground. Two missions were flown to assess the limits of the fire and what damage had been caused. The GAASI Lynx multimode SAR radar on the MQ-9 is able to penetrate smoke and clouds to obtain a clear picture of the ground.

Assistant Adjutant General, Headquarters California Air National Guard, Brigadier General Dana Hessheimer said: “The 163rd Attack Wing supports citizens during fires by operating two missions under approval from the Secretary of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration. The two missions are to help fire crews assess fire perimeters and to identify structures that have been lost. Through the efforts of our response team, 77,000 acres have been mapped and more that 1,300 structures have been identified.”

Two Reapers were allocated to the operation on October 10, after obtaining Federal Aviation Administration clearance to operate in domestic airspace. The aircraft operated over the fires in Yuba, Butte, Sonoma and Napa counties, as well as support of efforts against a fire stretching from Napa to Sonoma counties. The 163rd Wing’s newly opened Hap Arnold Centre provided data fusion between the various agencies and off ered disaster response off cials with a live and customisable common operating picture.

GA-ASI said that it is also working with the San Diego Fire Rescue Department and CAL FIRE to facilitate the integration of real-time data from the air vehicle into their fire-fighting operations.

The MQ-9s are operated by the 196th Reconnaissance Squadron, the ‘Grizzlies’, which pioneered the use of UAS’ in fire-fighting operations in 2013.

In other Reaper news, the US Air Force announced on October 20 that the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing has successfully completed the first combat mission with the Block 5 MQ-9A, in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the United States’ effort to defeat Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria.

The 386th’s 46th Expeditionary Attack Squadron (EATKS) previously operated the MQ-1B Predator, but recently transitioned to the larger, more powerful Block 5 variant of the MQ-9A Reaper.

The 46th EATKS commander said: “The persistent attack and reconnaissance that remotely piloted aircraft [RPA] bring to the fight is important to Inherent Resolve. RPAs are used to develop targets, find and track high-value individuals, protect friendly forces and complete the mission of finding, fixing, tracking, targeting, engaging and assessing.”

The Reaper is launched and recovered in-theatre by 46th deployed EATKS personnel, but the mission itself is flown by aircrew based in the United States, using a satellite link

General Atomics also announced in October that production of the MQ-1C Gray Eagle for the US Army has now transitioned to the extended range MQ-1C ER variant. The original MQ-1C is operational with 12 US Army units and has accumulated over 290,000 flight hours.

The 163rd Attack Wing has flown MQ-9s in support of civil authorities battling deadly wildfires in Northern California.
TSgt Neil Ballecer/Air National Guard

The first four extended-range aircraft are currently being used for developmental testing and the programme will transition to the operational test and evaluation phase in the spring of 2018, ahead of the first deliveries to the US Army in the summer.

GA-ASI President of Aircraft Systems David Alexander said: “We are proud of our many years of effort to complete the factory build of 165 MQ-1C Gray Eagles for the US Army. We’re now focused on delivering the Gray Eagle ER and believe its endurance and other improved capabilities will be a game changer on the battlefield.”

In August, the MQ-1C ER completed a 41.9-hour endurance test flight from El Mirage California, beating the 40-hour goal of the test programme and demonstrating an endurance of almost 17 hours longer than the current MQ-1C.

SSgt Richard Glover, 163rd Attack Wing IT Specialist, shows burn areas to SSgt Jamel Seales (sitting) and SSgt Shawn Blue (background) on October 14, 2017, at the wing’s Hap Arnold Centre at March Air Reserve Base. The centre is one of several wing assets activated to support the ongoing wildland fire-fighting effort in Northern California.
Senior Airman Crystal Housman/US Air National Guard