Reapers and Sentinels

The Air Force is building toward 65 orbits of MQ-9 Reapers—even though these remotely piloted aircraft cannot survive in contested airspace—because it needs them for relatively benign skies. So said Lt. Gen. Hawk Carlisle, Air Staff lead for operations, plans, and requirements, after an AFA-Air Force Breakfast Program address in Arlington, Va., Tuesday. Asked why USAF doesn’t simply stop buying the non-survivable Reapers and transition to something stealthier, Carlisle said, “We are looking at new systems. We have other capabilities out there with respect to the unmanned systems.” The Air Force has only identified one such system, the seemingly stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel, which was spotlighted recently when one went down in Iran. Carlisle said the service must find a “balance” between meeting needs for surveillance in anti-access/area-denial environments and in “permissive” airspace. “We still have a requirement for Africa, Afghanistan, and Iraq and Yemen and other places . . . where we can use [Reapers],” he said. That translates to 65 Reaper orbits, with the ability to surge to 85, he said. Along with the “other capabilities,” the planned Reaper buy “is about the right amount” to meet the Air Force’s information-gathering commitments, he added.