Air Force Conducts ‘First of Its Kind’ Combat Refuel of CENTCOM Drone

The U.S. Air Force refueled and relaunched an MQ-9 Reaper using a technique to support aircraft away from traditional airbases for the first time in combat, the service announced Dec. 21. The aircraft also used satellite communications to reduce the number of personnel required to support the mission.

The move marks the latest push in the Air Force’s concept of Agile Combat Employment, in which Air Force personnel and equipment counter threats to central operating bases by dispersing and operating instead from numerous locations.

“A Forward Arming and Refueling Point, or FARP, accomplishes this by allowing aircraft to prepare for their next mission without having to return to an established base,” the 361st Attack Squadron said in a news release. “The operation is the first of its kind to take place in a combat area of responsibility.”

The unusual mission occurred Dec. 10 in Southwest Asia, in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. An MQ-9 flown by the 65th Special Operation Squadron at Hulbert Field, Fla., was refueled by an HC-130J Combat King II. The Reaper was then relaunched to continue combat operations. The aircraft was remotely piloted and conducted ground operations via SATCOM Launch and Recovery, a capability demonstrated by MQ-9 manufacturer General Atomics in 2017.

“Until recently, this operation would have been impossible,” the release from the 361st Attack Squadron said. “SATCOM Launch and Recovery allows the Mission Control Element to conduct ground operations, taxi, takeoff, and land via satellite communications. This capability significantly reduces logistics and airlift requirements when the asset forward deploys and changes the way that Remotely Piloted Aircraft warfare is conducted.”

The U.S. military did not disclose the location of the Forward Arming and Refueling Point mission. According to the Department of Defense, photos of the mission were taken by an Airman assigned to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, which is an Air Forces Central (AFCENT) unit that supports Operation Inherent Resolve, the counter-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria. The refueling specialists were from the 26th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron.

361st Expeditionary Attack Squadron personnel “were able to refuel and prepare the aircraft for the 65 SOS to continue flying combat operations,” the release said, adding that the FARP specialists arrived aboard the HC-130.

The 361st Expeditionary Attack Squadron operates and maintains drones, including the MQ-9, in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. ISIS’s self-declared caliphate was destroyed in 2019, but the U.S. and its partners have continued their efforts to hunt down remnants of the terrorist organization and to prevent the militants from attempting a comeback.

According to the Air Force, the MQ-9 refueling and relaunching mission occurred at night on Dec. 10 at an undisclosed air base. In the early morning hours of Dec. 11, U.S. Special Operations forces conducted a helicopter raid in eastern Syria, killing two ISIS officials. It was unclear if the operations were connected, and CENTCOM did not immediately provide further details about the FARP mission.

The U.S. has been conducting numerous operations against ISIS this month after briefly pausing combined operations in Syria after Turkey began targeting the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in airstrikes.

Including the Dec. 11 operation, CENTCOM said it has conducted nine partnered operations against ISIS in Syria since resuming operations.

“The U.S. remains committed to countering the global threat from ISIS in partnership with local forces,” CENTCOM spokesman Col. Joe Buccino said in a statement on U.S. operations released Dec. 16. “ISIS continues to pursue an aggressive operational agenda, including external attacks that threaten U.S. allies and partners in the region and beyond. American forces remain in Syria partnered with local forces to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

Around 900 U.S. troops are in Syria. Air Forces Central supports the operations in missions flown by drones and manned aircraft. CENTCOM said the recent operations have required extensive planning and have not injured or killed any U.S. troops or civilians.

“The Air Force is always developing ways to act faster and more effectively around the world,” the 361st Attack Squadron said.