Sensing and Striking: How MQ-9A Block 5s Are to Revolutionize the US Marine Intelligence

USMC's MUX MALE initiative enters Phase One with MQ-9 Reapers. Drones to serve as eyes and ears for joint forces, revolutionizing battlefield awareness

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

The United States Marine Corps (USMC) is acquiring MQ-9 Reaper drones to assist combined forces with surveillance, reconnaissance, and secure communications gateways and network bridges.

These platforms will exchange data with satellites, other drones, aircraft, ships, expeditionary advanced bases, ground maneuver forces, ground control stations, and ground sensors.

Drones manufactured by General Atomics will be delivered to Marine Corps coastal defense regiments.

General Eric Smith stated on June 24, 2024, at a Brookings Institution event, that the MQ-9 drones will be capable of ” sensing and making sense of” the environment. He mentioned the inclusion of classified modules on the drones that allow them to replicate things that are sent to them, detect them, deploy them, and send them back out, making them essentially undetectable.

When DefenseScoop asked Smith about the use of electronic decoys, Smith confirmed that the MQ-9 could somehow disappear from the enemy radar.

Phase One of the Marine Corps MUX MALE Initiative

The first phase of the Marine Corps’ MUX MALE initiative will include 20 MQ-9A Block 5 systems, as well as associated ground control stations and Sky Tower relay modules for data transmission and communications. At least twelve drones have been deployed.

The primary objective of the Marine Corps is to employ this system for reconnaissance missions, electronic warfare, and communication and data relay in the Indo-Pacific region.

This concept is consistent with the Pentagon’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control (CJADC2) initiative, which advocates for enhanced connectivity among the sensors, platforms, and data streams of the U.S. armed forces and critical allies to create a more cohesive network.

Smith argues that the utility of a military force or asset in two critical areas—sensing (intelligence gathering) and striking (attacking) is lost when it surrenders to an enemy. He underscores the necessity of gathering information from a distance, suggesting the importance of long-range surveillance and reconnaissance. Maintaining an active, non-conceding posture is crucial for military effectiveness.  He underscores the necessity of gathering information from a distance, suggesting the importance of long-range surveillance and reconnaissance. The importance of understanding the battlefield circumstances is underscored. Smith underlines the significance of promptly and broadly disseminating information to all allied forces in the combat zone. He emphasizes the importance of collaboration among ‘joint forces’, meaning various military branches or allied nations. Smith identifies the MQ-9 as a critical asset in achieving these capabilities.

The general anticipates that drones will operate more autonomously in the future than they do today.

He pointed out that these systems still demand substantial human input and supervision despite being referred to as “unmanned.” The data and footage that these systems capture necessitate human observation and interpretation. Although these systems can be operated remotely, they still require human operators to direct their actions and make critical decisions. These systems need routine maintenance and repairs, which must be executed by competent technicians, as is the case with any intricate technology.

He argued that operations could be improved by AI-based systems.

Smith emphasized that the Navy currently possesses the automated Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), which safeguards ships from incoming missiles and other aerial threats by releasing thousands of rounds per minute. Sailors can set parameters for CIWS to engage targets without the need for additional human intervention.

The General underscores that the operation of military systems is presently obliged by law and necessitates human involvement. He asserts that the future entails a transition in which humans initially initiate operations but subsequently relinquish control to automated systems. He observes that the extent of human involvement is not rigorously defined, which allows for increased automation, even though it is necessary. Automation is an inevitable and already existing component of military technology. He emphasizes the importance of systems capable of learning and adapting, enhancing their performance over time. The MQ-9 is an example of a system that can exchange information with various other platforms, such as ships and ground sensors, to accumulate and analyze data. These systems cannot only accumulate data but also analyze it and disseminate it to various military branches. By enabling the exchange of information among these domains, these systems facilitate the coordination of air, land, and sea forces.

MQ-9A Block 5

The Reaper gained prominence as a counterterrorism tool for the Air Force and CIA in the post-9/11 wars in the Middle East. In July 2023, the GAASI released a statement that the USMC fleet will be exclusively composed of the MQ-9A Extended Range (ER) Block 5 configuration, which has been upgraded with wing-borne fuel pods and reinforced landing gear. This model has been engineered to extend its endurance to over 30 hours, enabling persistent long-endurance surveillance capabilities. This sophisticated system offers the USMC a comprehensive real-time situational awareness picture, as it is equipped with a Full-Motion Video, a Moving Target Indicator/Maritime Mode Radar, and a Synthetic Aperture Radar. The release also stated that the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) had attained 20,000 flying hours with the MQ-9A.


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