The USMC’s Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3 (VMU-3) ‘Phantoms’ celebrated reaching Initial Operational Capability with the MQ-9A Reaper medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV at MCAS Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, on August 4.
The MQ-9A forms a key element in the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Unmanned Expeditionary (MUX) force. VMU-3 previously operated smaller, less-capable unmanned systems, including the MQ-27 ScanEagle, RQ-21 Blackjack and RQ-7 Shadow during US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The USMC ordered eight extended-range MQ-9As from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) under the USAF’s Agile Reaper Enterprise Solution, which uses an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contracting model to acquire MQ-9As for US and export customers more rapidly. It took delivery of its first two MQ-9As in May 2023. The USMC will not arm its MQ-9As and will not call the aircraft ‘Reapers’ to underline the difference in mission set with the USAF.
The contract marks one part of a wider move from Company Owned/Company Operated (COCO) MQ-9A operations to a Government Owned/Government Operated (GOGO) model. The Marines have undertaken 7,000 hours of COCO flight operations since September 2018, using two aircraft that were transferred from the USAF, which is divesting its MQ-9A fleet. These two aircraft were purchased by the USMC in August 2021. Meanwhile, crews from VMU-1 ‘Watchdogs’ conducted their first operational flight of a leased (COCO) MQ-9A in the Middle East on March 20, 2020.
The MUX MALE (as the USMC MQ-9A is categorised) will provide Tier 1 operational capabilities, including an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission set, in addition to communications relay, electronic warfare and airborne early warning taskings. Future roles are being explored for the MQ-9As, including offensive air support.
Lt Col Nicholas Law, commander of VMU-3, said: “We will utilise these assets to devote comprehensive maritime domain awareness, serving as wayfinders for our combined and joint forces.” He referred to these as advanced capabilities that he said would be imperative to meet the security demands of the 21st century operating environment.