U.S. Air Forces Europe-Africa Command announced Tuesday that approximately 90 airmen have begun their new NATO support mission at Romania's 71st Air Base in Campia Turzii.
Until a full squadron can be established at the base, the Reapers will belong to the 31st Expeditionary Operations Group, Detachment 1, according to a release. The unit is subordinate to the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy.
"The forward and ready positioning of our MQ-9s at this key strategic location reassures our allies and partners, while also sending a message to our adversaries, that we can quickly respond to any emergent threat," Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and Air Forces Africa, said in the release.
USAFE did not specify how many drones will operate from the base, which is centrally located between eastern and western Europe.
"The forward MQ-9 presence enabled by this deployment demonstrates the United States' commitment to the security and stability of Europe and aims to strengthen relationships between NATO allies and other European partners," the release states.
The Defense Department officially transitioned from the MQ-1 Predator to the larger and faster Reaper in 2018 when it deactivated the older, medium-altitude unmanned aircraft. The move brought the MQ-9 to the forefront of multi-role drone operations worldwide.
The Air Force began MQ-9 surveillance missions out of Miroslawiec Air Base in northwest Poland in 2018; it established the 52nd Expeditionary Operations Group, Detachment 2, as a permanent host for the drones one year later. MQ-9s from Miroslawiec have deployed to Campia Turzii numerous times, according to the service.
U.S. officials have repeatedly called for more eyes in the sky to keep watch over adversarial behavior by Russia as the Defense Department's European footprint has shrunk.
USAFE said Tuesday that the MQ-9s will support Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, exercises, in addition to flying "freedom of maneuver missions and integrat[ing] with joint and coalition forces in the region."
Programs such as the European Deterrence Initiative -- prompted in 2014 as a result of Russia's annexation of Crimea -- have fueled ambitious outreach efforts to partners in Europe through initiatives such as ACE, which brings multiple units, and sometimes allies or partners, together to practice building small hubs to house quick-reaction forces before tearing down and heading to a new location.
Last fall, exercise "Agile Reaper" tested whether airmen at multiple locations could coordinate to execute the same MQ-9 sortie. The result proved that numerous airmen can operate a single drone during its mission. The same exercise tested whether the Air Force could use a slimmed-down profile of personnel, fuel and equipment to conduct full-scale MQ-9 operations.
"It is not new that MQ-9 can go places and do it quickly," Lt. Col. Brian Davis, commander of the 29th Attack Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, said in an interview. "But ... what is entirely new [is] the ability to organically take my operation and put it anywhere I want to with a very small footprint."