One of the most dangerous military weapons to ever exists and possibly would play a significant role in the next world war, the MQ-9A, is the latest major procurement of the US Marine Corps (USMC).

On Sunday, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) announced that they would soon begin delivering the eight MQ-9A Extended Range (ER) aircraft to the Marines as part of the Agile Reaper Enterprise Solution (ARES) contract signed by both parties on May 27.

USMC began operating the sophisticated unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in September 2018, under the contractor-owned/contractor-operated arrangement with GA-ASI. The US Force has used the leased UAS and ground control stations in its Afghanistan operations and “flew over 12,000 hours in the theater before returning to the US.”

This aided the development of the Marine Air Ground Task Force Unmanned Expeditionary (MUX) effort, which is now a program of record. However, it was only in August last year that the GA-ASI transferred the ownership of the MQ-9As to the USMC, anticipating receiving the payment later this year.

The first deliveries of the aircraft and support equipment will begin before the end of this year, arriving in time for the fleet standup for the Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU)-3 at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, in the summer os 2023. VMU-3 will operate these MQ-9A ERs with their unique sensors and network capabilities as part of the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 efforts to support training for the Marine Littoral Regiment.

The MQ-9A REAPER is a remotely piloted aircraft system developed with GA-ASI funding that first soared to the skies in 2001 and is widely regarded as a state-of-the-art invention. It is controlled remotely by an aircrew stationed at a ground command center composed of a military-rated pilot, who is responsible for maneuvering the aircraft and command missions, and enlisted aircrew personnel designated to operate sensors and guide weapons.

MQ-9A Crew at the Ground Control Center
An aircrew monitoring and controlling the MQ-9A aircraft in the ground control station. (Screenshot from US Military News/YouTube)

The primary function of the UAS involves intelligence gathering in support of assault, coordination, and surveillance missions over land or sea.

It has a wingspan of more than 69 ft and a length of 36 ft and features a flight endurance of over 27 hours, speeds of 240 KTAS, at altitudes of up to 50,000 feet. The “reaper” also has a payload capacity of approximately 3,700 lbs, which includes more than 2800 lbs of external stores.

Despite its initial launch two decades ago, GA-ASI continues to innovate and improve the MQ-9A to ensure its relevancy. The anticipated ER model has improved “field-retrofittable capabilities” with upgraded wing-borne fuel pods and new reinforced landing gear. These new features “extend the aircraft’s impressive endurance from 27 to 34 hours, while increasing its operational flexibility.”

GA-ASI MQ-9A Reaper
(Image source: GA-ASI)

More details regarding its baseline system include the Multi-Spectral Targeting System that features an integrated infrared sensor, color or monochrome daylight TV camera, a shortwave infrared camera, a laser designator, and a laser illuminator. In addition, MTS provides full-motion video from each imaging sensor, which can be viewed as separate video streams or fused. Other MQ-9A Features include:

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  • Triple-redundant flight control system
  • Redundant flight control surfaces
  • Remotely piloted or fully autonomous
  • MIL-STD-1760 stores management system
  • Seven external stations for carriage of payloads
  • C-Band line-of-sight data link control
  • Ku-Band Beyond Line-of-Sight (BLOS)/SATCOM data link control
  • Over 90 percent of system operational availability
  • C-130 transportable (or self-deploys)

Difference between MQ-9 Alpha and Beta

Undeniably, MQ-9 is among the most prolific aircraft systems ever invented, and so far, it now has two variants: MQ-9A and -9B—and both perform to serve the same objective. Moreover, both drones are more potent than their remotely piloted aircraft system predecessor, the MQ-1 Predator. But what’s the difference between the two?

Characteristic-wise, MQ-9B, SeaGuardian, is built a bit larger than the other, having a wingspan of 79 ft a length of around 37 ft, and flight endurance of 40 plus hours in the air. It is also certified to operate in civilian airspace, which the B model doesn’t have, and an advance Detect and Avoid (DAA) system.

MQ-9B SkyGuardian
(Image source: GA-ASI)

The SeaGuardian can also be configured to support other surveillance operations such as search and rescue, law enforcement (drug trafficking, illegal immigration, and piracy), and humanitarian/disaster relief assistance, to name a few.

On the other hand, the Reaper is more focused on combat and assault with its laser rangefinder assist feature. It also has synthetic aperture radar and can launch up to eight laser-guided missiles. It can load the highly accurate Air-to-Ground Hellfire Missile, which means low collateral damage, while being able to perform in the anti-armor, and anti-personnel strike role.