USAF tests new Ghost Reaper capabilities on MQ-9A

Enhanced capabilities for the US Air Force’s (USAF’s) General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) MQ-9A Reaper remotely piloted air system fleet are being tested by the New York Air National Guard’s (ANG’s) 174th Attack Wing (ATKW).

The wing – which is based at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base (ANGB) in Syracuse, New York – announced on May 6 that it has partnered with multiple Department of Defense (DoD) contractors and academia to lead an effort to establish new and additional capabilities for the Reaper fleet.

According to the assistant director of operations at the 174th Operations Support Squadron, these capabilities include enhancements to the platform’s battlefield and airspace communications systems, as well as its target identification, tracking and processing abilities. This initiative is known as the new ‘Ghost Reaper’ concept.

MQ-9A Reaper [US ANG/Staff Sgt Megan Fowler]
An MQ-9 Reaper with three Ghost Reaper pods awaits take-off at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, New York, on April 14, 2021. US ANG/Staff Sgt Megan Fowler

There are three separate pods involved in the test campaign for this initiative, comprising Northrop Grumman’s Freedom Pod; GA-ASI’s Centerline Avionics Bay Pod and Ultra Electronics’ Rosetta Echo Advanced Payloads (REAP) pod. Each pod is manufactured by a contractor which specialises in its unique function, making use of expertise gained from previous programmes.

The assistant director of operations said: “We are currently doing an operational assessment of new equipment,” explaining that it will build future capabilities in additional areas of responsibility. The three pods will help the MQ-9A play an increased, more prominent role in the command and control arena of the battlefield. It will also be able to receive and pass information to and from older fourth-generation and newer fifth-generation aircraft.

This mission is solely an ANG mission and is financed by the National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account funds. The investment into this initiative were leveraged for modernisation since the ANG only operates legacy aircraft.

From May 3-14, all three pods demonstrated their capabilities onboard a 174th ATKW-operated MQ-9A, focusing on a higher level of integration with additional air- and ground-based assets during the Pacific Command’s premier exercise, Northern Edge, at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska.