General Highlights MQ-9 Reaper Drone Squadron's Role in California Wildfire Fight

An MQ-9 Reaper views the smoky San Gabriel Mountains.
An MQ-9 Reaper views the smoky San Gabriel Mountains of southern California in transit to a fire mission in northern California, late August, 2020. (California Air National Guard)

A large hunter-killer drone commonly associated with classified missions over the Middle East has played a crucial role in the Army National Guard's efforts to combat raging wildfires on the West Coast, the deputy adjutant general for the Guard's California Military Department said Tuesday.

And that, Maj. Gen. Matt Beevers added, proves that Guard division, like their active-duty counterparts, need a native large drone capability at the ready.

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Beevers described the Guard's massive aviation response to the devastating wildfires. Helicopter pilots, he said, have logged 901 flight hours, dropping 1.93 million gallons of water across 2,335 drop operations. Four modular airborne firefighting system-equipped C-130 Hercules aircraft, he said, have delivered another 4.18 million gallons of water to hotspots over 184 sorties. And two Guard RC-26B reconnaissance aircraft, he said, have logged nearly 150 hours' worth of damage assessments.

And in addition to all that, he said, the Reapers have provided precise mapping capabilities.

"We've employed an entire squadron of MQ-9s, mapping the fire perimeters of 27 different fires and fire complexes across the state," Beevers said. "Our Reapers have flown an incredible 1,159 flight hours."

Underscoring the work undertaken by Guard aviation, seven Guard helicopter crew members were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in September for their efforts during a harrowing multi-day mission to rescue hundreds of trapped campers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Beevers called for MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones in the Guard and pushed for more resources for Guard aviation as a whole, which has long flown older-model aircraft and had access to significantly fewer resources than the active-duty component.

While the Gray Eagle can carry AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, its highlights include sophisticated surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, battle damage assessment, advanced communications and manned-unmanned teaming.

"Imagine the value we could deliver in terms of readiness to the Army, and in terms of support to our agency partners, if we had Gray Eagles in the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade and across the 40th [Infantry] Division," Beevers said. "There's a Gray Eagle in every active component division. And we have to remember that we have 18 divisions in our Army, and to be successful each division must be equitably manned, trained and equipped to fight and win large-scale ground combat operations."

The Gray Eagle, an upgraded version of the MQ-1 Predator, is used by the Army worldwide for surveillance and armed missions. The lack of Gray Eagle capability within the Guard component is a centerpoint of the fiscal 2021 priorities laid out by the National Guard Association of the United States.

"The Army's Active Component currently operates the MQ-1C Gray Eagle and MQ-1C Gray Eagle Extended Range while the Army National Guard does not," a fact sheet from the organization reads. "It is critical this aircraft is fielded to the Army National Guard as the primary combat reserve of the Army to meet National Defense Strategy and doctrinal requirements for the 8 Army National Guard Divisions."

Beevers urged his audience to think of the proficiency his Guard remote-piloted aircraft operators and support personnel could have developed with Gray Eagles available for regular training.

"We have to train as we fight," he said. "Anything short of that is really, frankly, criminal."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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