MQ-9 Air-to-Air Missiles Postponed for Higher Priorities

Air Force SSgt. Denzel, a weapons aircraft armament specialist assigned to the 174th Maintenance Squadron, performs a check of a USAF MQ-9 Reaper before loading weapons during RED FLAG-Alaska 19-2, June 18, 2019, at Eielson AFB, Alaska. Air Force photo by A1C Taylor Phifer.

DAYTON, Ohio—MQ-9 Reapers will keep their slew of air-to-surface weapons, but the Air Force is holding off on adding air-to-air missiles to the drone’s arsenal for now, the service’s program executive officer for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and special operations forces said.

The Air Force hasn’t vetted the MQ-9’s air-to-air combat skills since a 2017 test that proved the armed unmanned aircraft could shoot down other small drones, said Col. Dale White in a June 19 interview here.

He indicated the concept has been pushed to the back burner as Air Combat Command pursues other ideas needed to meet the National Defense Strategy’s focus on more advanced technologies.

“Right now, I can tell you it’s not something we’re actively … pursuing,” White said. “It’s one of those things where we always say, ‘there’s no limit to what you can do with enough time and money.’ … It is a capability we’ll always keep at the forefront of something that we can do.”

In March 2018, the Air Force said it planned to offer General Atomics a contract to develop an air-to-air missile engagement simulator for the Reaper, although no firm plans were made to add the new weapon to the airframe.

The service has said it wants to use unmanned aircraft less often in low-intensity counterinsurgency fights and bring them into contested environments, though their vulnerability is in the spotlight this month following shootdown of a Navy RQ-4A by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.

This story has been updated to clarify that MQ-9 Reapers carry air-to-surface weapons.