Gearing up for a potential conflict in the Pacific, the Marine Corps has established a new military occupational specialty for MQ-9 Reaper drone operators.
The service this month announced 7318, an MOS for officers in the ranks of second lieutenant to lieutenant colonel, who will advise commanders on employment of Group 5 unmanned aerial systems, including the Reaper.
The Marine Corps primarily operates the RQ-21 Blackjack, a smaller intelligence-gathering drone, but has for several years leased MQ-9s from maker General Atomics. While the service already has an enlisted unmanned aircraft system operator MOS, the move to create an officer career path for MQ-9s emphasizes the Corps’ planned investment in the large hunter-killer systems.
The fiscal 2020 Defense Department budget request included funds for three Marine Corps-owned MQ-9s, and the systems feature prominently in the future vision for the Corps laid out by Commandant Gen. David Berger.
“[The commandant’s] 2030 force will operate Group 5 UAS,” according to the newly released Marine Administrative Message. “To achieve this future vision, an in stride transition is necessary to leverage current Group 3 operators until the future Group 5 community is created; This will require two primary MOSs for UAS officers.”
The group designation refers to the size category of the drone. Group 3 includes drones weighing less than 1,300 pounds, which describes the Blackjack; Groups 4 and 5 refer to the largest unmanned systems, including those as large as passenger aircraft.
While contractors have operated MQ-9s for the Marine Corps in the past, a shift came in March, when members of Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 independently carried out a Reaper flight over an undisclosed location in the Middle East. Marine pilots and sensor operators operated the aircraft from Yuma, Arizona, General Atomics said at the time.
“As a partner with the Marine Corps, we look forward to expanding the role of Medium-altitude, Long-endurance (MALE) UAS in support of maritime littoral missions,” David R. Alexander, president of General Atomics, said in a news release following the flight.
The second MOS for UAS officers already exists, but is getting an upgrade. Those in the 7315 MOS, UAS Marine air-ground task force electronic warfare officer, will now focus specifically on Group 3 UAS operations, according to the new MARADMIN.
The 7315 MOS was created in 2012, ahead of the Marine Corps’ retirement of its fleet of EA-6B Prowler radar jamming aircraft. When that took place, some troops in the 7588 electronic warfare officer MOS became UAS officers.
Under Berger, the Marine Corps is undergoing a service-wide redesign that will shed personnel and heavy equipment and refocus the force for possible island-hopping missions in the Pacific. For that strategy, officials have said they will need to expand overwatch for its troops by using more autonomous platforms.
The Air Force is also testing out new ways to use the MQ-9 to advance its strategy.
In September, the service demonstrated that it could use a slimmed-down profile of personnel, fuel and equipment to conduct full-scale MQ-9 operations for maritime missions.
During the exercise, "Agile Reaper," the MQ-9 conducted combat search and rescue; maritime strike coordination and reconnaissance; and other missions over the Navy's Pacific ranges at Point Mugu, California.
The MQ-9 has a payload of 3,750 pounds and carries a combination of Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II and GBU-38 JDAMs, according to the service. The Air Force recently proved it could carry eight AGM-114 Hellfire missiles -- double its usual capacity.
-- Gina Harkins and Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.