The Air Force's MQ-9 Reaper drone has successfully flown nighttime missions over the ocean and also teamed with fighter jets in a strike exercise off the Florida cost, Air Force officials said.
"This was the first demonstration that the MQ-9 could complete the full kill-chain in a maritime environment," Lt. Col. Travis Norton, chief of the Joint Readiness Branch at the Joint Staff, said Monday at the Air and Space Conference outside Washington, D.C.
"They also integrated with other aircraft," including the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter "in a maritime environment where the adversary was swarming boats," he said. "And they worked together very effectively.”
One of the unmanned aircraft -- known in Air Force parlance as remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA -- zoomed out to "get the big picture of where all these boats were and pass it to the fighters," while another determined who was friend and foe, Norton said.
The use of the drones sped up the kill-chain, he said.
The exercise represents the kind of teaming of RPAs with manned aircraft that the Air Force will be emphasizing in the short-term, according to Maj. Jason Willey, MQ-9 Branch Chief, RPA Capabilities Division, Intelligence Directorate.
The advances come as the Air Force prepares to retire the MQ-1 Predator, which evolved since its inception from flying reconnaissance missions to strike operations. Today's MQ-9 -- a bigger version of the Predator -- wields Hellfire missiles and is routinely used to carry out strike airstrikes.
In the future, the Air Force plans to use RPA transports and aerial refuelers, though Willey said this is much further down the road. When it does happen, it would likely be used primarily for smaller aircraft bringing supplies to a forward operating base rather than strategic airlift such as a C-17, he said. The RPA for airlift will likely get its start in the commercial sector, he said.