U.S. Marine MV 22 Osprey Tiltrotor refuels a USAF MQ-9 Reaper drone for the first time

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Vaibhav Agrawal
Vaibhav Agrawal
Vaibhav Agrawal is the founder editor of Bhraman (a Digital Travelogue). As an independent journalist, he is passionate for investigating and reporting on complex subjects. He has an extensive background in both print and digital media, with a focus on Travel and Defence reporting. *Views are personal

An MQ-9 Zreaper drone was refuelled by an MV 22 Osprey Tiltrotor, displaying joint manship between two U.S. armed forces services. 

U.S. Air Force Maj. Shanna Ream, assistant director of operations for the 163rd Attack Wing, said this was the first time an MQ-9 Reaper was refuelled by a joint platform and just the second time an MQ-9 got gasoline from another aircraft. The training also enabled the 163rd Attack Wing to perform “Reaper ACE,” or “agile combat employment,” which involves shifting activities away from centralized physical infrastructures and toward a network of smaller, scattered sites.

Ream said that the MQ-9 has relied on a huge foreign presence to launch and retrieve the aircraft. In future battles, the Joint Force will most likely not be able to create huge air bases overseas, necessitating adaptability in the use of the MQ-9 platform.

This training and integration are critical for both the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps as they seek to become more nimble, deadly, and expeditionary. The Marine Corps is also purchasing the MQ-9 and will seek methods to use the aircraft with the smallest feasible footprint in support of Force Design 2030.

The 163rd Attack Wing has previously engaged in Integrated Training Exercises, but not to this level of integration, getting aircraft supplied ground refuelling, coordinating with US Marine Corps F/A-18s, and directly assisting ground movement troops.

The reapers have a 3,900 lb (1769 kg) fuel capacity as per the General Atomics website. The MQ-9A has an endurance of more than 27 hours, a top speed of 240 KTAS, a payload capacity of 3,850 pounds (1746 kilogrammes), and external storage weighing 3,000 pounds (1361 kilogrammes). The plane can carry 500% greater cargo and has nine times the horsepower. It gives the user long-duration, continuous surveillance/strike capabilities.

MQ-9 was refuelled first time by an MC-130J Commando II 

The 27th Special Operations Wing shared a video online on February 13, 2018, showing personnel of the unit utilizing an MC-130J Commando II special operations transport to put up a forward arming and refuelling point (FARP) and refuel at least one MQ-9 Reaper drone at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. The 9th Special Operations Squadron of the Wing flies the Commando II, while the 33rd Special Operations Squadron flies Reapers.

Hot pit refuelling MQ-9

In November 2021, the first-ever successful hot pit refuelling training drill, the Exercise Agile Combat Employment (ACE) Reaper, was a watershed moment in MQ-9 Reaper missions. In this case, a Reaper with 12 hours flight needed a refuelling. 

Hot-pit refuelling, also known as rapid refuelling by the USAF, is the act of refuelling the MQ-9 while the aircraft is still powered up. The goal is to reduce the time between landing and rotating the plane for a relaunch.

Hot pit refuelling is part of the ACE model of operations, which positions bare-bones personnel strategically around the AOR to accept aircraft, quickly refuel and reload ordnance, and send them to the sky. The capability reduces the amount of infrastructure and manpower needed for a mission, providing commanders and Airmen with unparalleled flexibility.

Master Sgt. Travis Wannarka, 9th Aircraft Maintenance Unit MQ-9 production superintendent, had a handful of crew chiefs and avionics technicians on hand for the ACE Reaper scenario.

ACE model of operations

When communication is disrupted, and higher-level support is limited, Agile Combat Employment (ACE) decentralizes command and control. It enhances the speed with which dispersed assets and persons may be manoeuvred.

Decentralization aids in overcoming the difficulties of operating over a wide ocean studded with islands. Agreements with partner countries to exchange resources assist in the development of a network that can continue to function jointly or independently if one or more of its components fails.

ACE prioritizes the development of multi-capable Airmen with diverse certifications or skill sets. It is one example of how ACE is assisting Joint All Domain Operations, a warfighting strategy that emphasizes force cohesion and flexibility. Cross-functional teams offer a more flexible force with a smaller footprint to keep operations running.

In battle, ACE is universal applicability to all combat air force activities rather than a specific mission. ACE refers to the capacity to project combat power at any moment and from any location while staying operationally unexpected in order to confound an adversary’s decision-making process.

General CQ Brown, Jr., Chief of Staff of the Air Force, signed the service’s first doctrine publication on Agile Combat Employment on December 9, 2021, codifying a proactive and reactive operational manoeuvre scheme to increase survivability while generating combat power across the integrated deterrence continuum.

The LeMay Center created Air Force Doctrine Note 1-21, Agile Combat Employment, in collaboration with specialists from throughout the military to serve as the cornerstone of ACE operational doctrine. AFDN 1-21 directs Airmen to swiftly innovate and promote conversation within the force in order to build new best practices.


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