To prepare, some units -- such as the 20th Attack Squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri -- will halt flight operations July 1.
"Right now, the plan is to stop flying the MQ-1 in 2018, and that means we need to get transitioned this year," the 20th Attack Squadron commander, identified only as Lt. Col. James, said in a release. "As part of that, we are going to stop flying the MQ-1 completely by July 1, 2017. We will gradually stand up our number of combat lines on the MQ-9 so by the end of the year we are only an MQ-9 squadron."
The Air Force has 93 Reapers and 150 Predators in its inventory. Both aircraft are made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego.
Moving from the MQ-1 -- which proved itself as a strike and surveillance platform early on in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has been in service for more than 20 years -- to the larger MQ-9 streamlines the force, according to the 432nd Operations Group commander, identified as Col. Joseph in the release.
"Having a single aircraft buys more flexibility, simplifies training and logistics, and gives our people more [career progression] opportunities," Joseph said. "I can't move my people in between squadrons without paying the penalty of having to train them on another aircraft."
The 432nd, at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, is an all RPA combat air patrol unit.
In addition to technological advances with the Reaper, Joseph said there has been an increased desire for more eyes-on-target and RPA support.
The service has been working to increase the number of combat air patrols, or CAPs, from 60 to 70. The additional 10 CAPS would be "Air Force owned but contractor operated" and be added by the end of fiscal 2018, Air Force spokeswoman Erika Yepsen told Military.com on Tuesday.
Additionally, the Air Force said that while the MQ-1 -- first designated as the RQ-1 -- and "the crews who flew them proved their weapons proficiency, it was never originally designed to carry weapons, resulting in a limited … payload. The demand for more attack capabilities exceeded the MQ-1's design," the release said.
"In the case of the MQ-1, I think we wanted more out of it, but we were at a physical stop on the airplane and needed a new one," Joseph said.
While also armed with Hellfires, the MQ-1 can carry only 450 pounds in munitions.
Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, will host a new MQ-9 Reaper group, the service said last month, but only for mission control elements.
In September, the Air Force announced eight potential bases to host new drone units in preparation for the transition. The service is conducting additional environmental studies at Eglin AFB, Florida; Tyndall AFB, also in Florida; Vandenberg AFB, California; and Shaw AFB to host a full MQ-9 wing, as well as a maintenance group and operations support personnel, the service said.
The Air Force has not yet decided on the location for the remotely piloted aircraft units.