Increasing the number of MQ-9 Reaper drones based in Europe earlier this year gives the U.S. more leverage on the continent and allows it to observe Russian military activity in the Black Sea, the head of U.S. Air Forces Europe-Africa, or USAFE, said Thursday.
In January, the Air Force announced that it had begun operating the drones from Romania, expanding its intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance reach in Europe with approximately 90 airmen on a new NATO support mission at Romania's 71st Air Base in Campia Turzii.
Earlier this month, USAFE officials said MQ-9s operated by the 25th Attack Group had begun flights in support of the service's Agile Combat Employment, an initiative to test quick-reaction forces across the continent; freedom of maneuver missions; and integration with joint and coalition forces.
Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, USAFE's commander, said the drone operations are also meant to reassure the U.S.'s partners and allies.
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.
But Miroslawiec Air Base sits closer to the Baltic Sea; Campia Turzii is roughly 300 miles from the Black Sea.
"Importantly, it really facilitates our ability to compete in the Black Sea," Harrigian said during a virtual chat with reporters at the Air Force Association's annual Aerospace Warfare Symposium.
U.S. officials have repeatedly called for more eyes in the sky to keep watch over adversarial behavior by Russia as the American military's European presence has shrunk since the Cold War. The United States had 80 military bases across Europe in the late 1980s; today, it has 37, according to database company Statista.
In 2012, the U.S. deactivated two Army brigade combat teams that had been permanently stationed on the continent, removing more than 10,000 soldiers, according to the Heritage Foundation.
As of December, there are roughly 64,000 active-duty U.S. troops stationed in Europe, including large groups stationed across the U.K., Germany and Italy, according to the Pentagon. That's up from December 2015, when there were roughly 58,000 active-duty U.S. troops on the continent, per the Defense Department's quarterly end-strength reports.
The DoD has put an emphasis on having more troops in Europe, even if on a more rotational basis, given the uptick in Russian activity since 2014.
"As you can imagine, there's a fair amount of activity down there, and these MQ-9s will better ensure that we're able to develop our understanding of the operational environment," Harrigian said. "It gives us the ability to collect in a manner that we previously did not have, and simultaneously affords us -- from a theater perspective -- to gain a clearer understanding of activities that are occurring not only in the Black Sea but ... Crimea and that area."
Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in 2014, followed by a further incursion into Ukraine's eastern front, where Russian forces began using mixed urban techniques in hybrid warfare operations against Ukrainian forces.
The Defense Department officially transitioned from the MQ-1 Predator to the Reaper in 2018 when it retired the older, medium-altitude unmanned aircraft. The move brought the MQ-9 to the forefront of multi-role drone operations worldwide.
USAFE intends to use MQ-9s in Romania and in Poland "in several different fashions," Harrigian said.
MQ-9s in Poland have flown in the Baltics, demonstrating "that we can operate up there," he said, noting that they've flown into Arctic regions as well.
"They have been very effective in that region in terms of the reach that they provide us. ... In both locations, the MQ-9s in competition have been very helpful," Harrigian said.
-- Stephen Losey contributed to this report.