The US Air Force recently conducted a successful test trial for the upgrade on the MQ-9 Reaper drone’s satellite communications (SATCOM).

According to a press release, the Air National Guard-Air Force Reserve Command Test Center (AATC) led the test, in partnership with the 174th Attack Wing and 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron, during exercise Northern Edge 2023 held at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, Alaska. The demonstration aims to deploy the sophisticated drone on future intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions internationally, operating from remote US military bases, particularly in the Pacific region.

The SATCOM upgrade features advanced communication technology and sensors capable of transmitting critical data over long distances. Through this improvement, the Reaper drone can maintain its high altitude capabilities while ensuring the quality of its real-time intelligence gathering, which encompasses monitoring threat activities, positions, and movements.

After completing the enhanced trials, the drone will support ongoing operations worldwide, actively participate in critical training exercises, and undertake other missions aimed at strengthening and modernizing the military capacity of the US armed forces.

Major Ryan Nastase, the Test Program Manager, further noted that implementing the SATCOM upgrade will have significant benefits for the MQ-9 drone, enabling the cutting-edge unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to operate effectively from “pole to pole,” meaning it will have communication capabilities in both the northern and southern extremities of the Earth.

Furthermore, the SATCOM upgrade will significantly enhance the Reaper drone’s data transmission and reception capabilities. It can handle a substantial volume of information by increasing the amount of data or bandwidth that the MQ-9 can transmit and receive by more than twofold—a crucial factor for ISR missions, as it allows the drone to gather and relay more data in real-time.

MQ-9 Reaper new weapons test
A USAF MQ-9 Reaper assigned to the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron armed with an AIM-9X Block 2 missile, 2020. (Image source: DVIDS)

In addition to increasing the bandwidth, the latest upgrade highlighted the reduction of latency or transmission time, significantly cutting the time required to send and receive data by a factor of ten. This latency reduction ensures swift relaying of the information collected by the MQ-9 drone. Accordingly, it enables its operators to make quicker decisions and respond faster, particularly during crucial moments.

Lt. Col. Matthew Harris, a test pilot stationed at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, New York, expressed that the latest upgrade is a significant advancement for both the MQ-9 drone and the Air National Guard, dubbing it a “game-changer.”

“We can better support our combatant commanders and provide critical intelligence in real-time,” Harris added.

Overall, the MQ-9 Reaper drone SATCOM upgrade will provide the platform with improved communication capabilities, increased data transmission capacity, and faster transmission speeds, ultimately enhancing its effectiveness in various operational scenarios to combatant commanders across the globe.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) initially developed the MQ-9 Reaper (Predator B) drone for the US Air Force between the mid-1990s and early 2000s. The long-endurance, turboprop-powered drone entered service in 2007 and has since played a vital and active attack role in combat operations. It has been extensively deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen between the late 2000s and mid-2010s, accumulating numerous enemy combatant kills and successfully destroying multiple enemy targets. Additionally, the drone has demonstrated its effectiveness as a versatile UAV for ISR missions, equipped with lethal munitions and adaptable capabilities.

As you may recall, the MQ-9 Reaper made headlines in March after a Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft intercepted the UAV amid a recon mission over the Black Sea. According to reports, one of the two Russian planes intentionally hit the Reaper drone’s propeller by dumping fuel, prompting its US operators to crash-land it in the deepest region of international waters.

After the downing of the sophisticated drone, a race to recover the technology ensued. However, US authorities assured that no sensitive components were onboard the drone, minimizing the risk of Russia exploiting any potential recovery. Moreover, given the depths at which it had plummeted, the likelihood of successful retrieval was deemed impossible.

Nevertheless, earlier in May, EurAsian Times reported that Russian forces claimed to have successfully recovered the downed drone out of the Black Sea waters. Its scientists are currently “decoding” its “satellite navigation, electronic intelligence gathering systems, optical devices, and data-linking devices,” citing a local Russian media who stated to have received the report from an unnamed “source.”

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To cite what the Russian media reported, according to the translation provided, Moscow has “successfully raised from the bottom (of the Black Sea) by the Russian military,” adding that “the Americans were confident that the Russian military would not dare touch the drone and underestimated the Russian ingenuity,” it became a “legitimate trophy of the Russian military (because) of its onboard electronics that allowed for reconnaissance at considerable distances.

Note: the claim has yet to be independently verified, so it is advisable to take it with a grain of salt until further confirmation or evidence is available.

A month following the MQ-9 incident, Pentagon has reduced its operations over the Black Sea, including recon mission for the RQ-4 Global Hawk, to avoid repeating what happened. Compared to the Reaper drone, the RQ-4 UAV is far more expensive and valuable, equipped with sensitive components that could pose a risk to technology and national security if they fall into the wrong hands.

Check out “On Killing Remotely: The Psychology of Killing with Drones” and discover the psychological aspect of engaging in combat using drones, with author Lt. Col. Wayne Phelps (USMC Ret.) offering a unique perspective into the complex moral, ethical, and psychological challenges faced by operators who remotely carry out lethal missions. You can get a copy here!