A Marine Corps crew was, for the first time, behind an MQ-9 Reaper drone flight in the Middle East as they supported personnel on the ground from another continent.
Members of Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 carried out a Reaper flight in an undisclosed location late last month, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., which owns the aircraft, announced last week.
The Marine pilots and sensor operators from the unmanned squadron operated the aircraft from Yuma, Arizona, said Maj. Joe Reney, a spokesman for Marine Corps Forces Central Command. A contractor team in the U.S. Central Command area of operations does the launch and recovery and maintenance support on the Reaper, he added.
The Marine Corps leases the MQ-9 from General Atomics to fly intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan.
Until now, the company had been operating the Reaper for the Marine Corps. The aircraft have flown more than 7,000 hours for the service since September 2018, according to General Atomics.
During that time, Reney said, the Marine Corps has been learning the technical, tactical and operational support procedures needed to operate the Reaper. Aside from collecting intelligence, the drone can conduct close-air support and precision strikes, do combat search and rescue flights, and provide overwatch for convoys or raids.
"The MQ-9 is a very reliable and versatile platform that can be launched and recovered anywhere we have a runway and a small launch and recovery element," Reney said.
Citing operational security concerns, 1st Lt. Fredrick Walker, a spokesman for 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing -- the unmanned squadron's parent command -- declined to say how many Marines are qualified to fly the Reaper.
The Marine Corps has two military occupational specialties designated to operate the MQ-9, Walker said: the enlisted unmanned aircraft system operator and the UAS Marine Corps air-ground task force electronic warfare officer.
The service wanted to lease Reapers to assist leathernecks advising Afghan forces in Helmand province, a hot spot for Taliban fighters. The drones, leaders told Military.com at the time, could help spot and eliminate insurgents.
Operating the aircraft alongside contractors has also given Marines experience in flying a big drone as the service continues its plans for a major unmanned aircraft that can operate at 30,000 feet and conduct surveillance at sea.
The Marine Corps' Reaper flight led from Yuma represents "a unique milestone" in the service's legacy of innovation, David Alexander, president of General Atomics, said in a statement. The company wants to expand medium-altitude, long-endurance flights to support future unmanned missions in maritime littoral settings, he added.
-- Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.