NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Air Force Special Operations Command wants to pack up an MQ-9 Reaper in less than eight hours, fly it anywhere in the world aboard a C-17, and then unpack it and have it ready to fly in another eight hours.
The Air Force can already ship an MQ-1 Predator aboard a C-17. Packing it up and putting it back together only takes four hours. Air Force Brig. Gen. Albert "Buck" Elton, the 27th Special Operations Wing commander, said AFSOC is a couple years away from having the same capability with the MQ-9.
MQ-1 and MQ-9 drones must fly aboard cargo aircraft to travel long distances because the unmanned aircraft don't have the refueling technology or the speed. Therefore, the MQ-9s and MQ-1s flying in Afghanistan arrive there via cargo jet.
Special Operations Command wanted to deliver large drones to places without any infrastructure to offer special operations teams additional intelligences, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) coverage, Elton explained to a crowd at the 2013 Air Force Association's Conference and Technology Exposition here on Monday.
The C-17 is one of the few aircraft in the Air Force fleet that is large enough to fit a drone and the necessary infrastructure to fly it, and still have the ability to land on shorter runways.
One of the most complex parts of shipping a drone, especially the MQ-9 since it is more advanced than the MQ-1, is the ground control station, Elton said. Pilots must travel with the drone in order to launch and land the aircraft. The pilots stationed with the MQ-1 or MQ-9 then hand off the aircraft to pilots back in the U.S. who fly the rest of the mission via satellite connection.
This has been done with regularity in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, but not in a matter of hours discounting flight time. And not in remote areas in places such as Africa.
The Air Force has 104 MQ-9s in the service's fleet, according to an Air Force fact sheet. It can carry a combination of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions.