MQ-9 Reaper Drone: Downed By Russia Over Black Sea, US Deploys Its UAVs To Philippines For The Very 1st Time

In a significant development, the US military has deployed some of its MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft to the Philippines, marking the first time they have ever been deployed to the country. 

The MQ-9 Reaper UAVs are currently participating in large-scale military drills. Recently, Philippine and American troops have kicked off the largest iteration of Balikatan, the annual military exercise, in the Philippines. 

In the ongoing annual Balikatan exercise, a pair of MQ-9 Reapers are conducting intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance missions. The Reaper drone made headlines recently after a Russian Su-27 dumped fuel on the drone, forcing it to crash into the Black Sea.

With a whopping 17,000 US and Philippine troops participating, this year’s Balikatan drills mark a significant milestone in the military cooperation between the two countries. 

Furthermore, the exercises involve the first large-scale integration of an unmanned platform into Philippine airspace, according to Staff Sgt Joseph Pagan, a California Air National Guard spokesperson. 

The 163rd Attack Wing of the California Guard deployed drones to Cubi Point, a former US naval air station in Subic Bay on the Philippines’ main island of Luzon. These drones are equipped with nose cameras and multi-spectrum targeting systems but do not have any weapons.

Captain Angelo Tapalla, a drone pilot with the California Guard, explained that the aircraft are aiding both land and marine maneuvers. The Reapers, manufactured by General Atomics in San Diego, can transport 3,000 pounds of weaponry. 

They have performed various operations in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as other regions of the Middle East and Africa. Last month, a dramatic incident occurred where an American MQ-9 Reaper drone was reportedly forced to crash into the Black Sea after a Su-27 Flanker fighter jet dumped fuel on it.

File Image: Su-27

The US Air Force disclosed on March 14 that a Russian Su-27 fighter jet collided with the MQ-9 Reaper drone’s rear propeller, which caused the US military to crash the drone into the Black Sea.

Meanwhile, over the past few months, considerable discussion has been held about Ukraine obtaining MQ-9 Reaper drones. 

However, due to the drone’s slow speeds and ability to fly at medium to high altitudes, it is believed to be too vulnerable for use near the front lines.

Equipped With New Software 

MQ-9 Reaper drone is outfitted with long-range radar and can offer commanders a full-motion view of the sea below. These aircraft have carried out various missions abroad, including close air support, search, and rescue, maritime interdiction, strike coordination, reconnaissance, and surveillance.

In November 2022, the newly formed 319th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron commenced a yearlong mission at Kanoya Air Base in southern Japan. The mission’s primary objective is surveillance and involves deploying eight MQ-9 Reaper drones that are not armed, along with more than 150 airmen. 

Lt. Col. Brian Davis, who is in charge of the 29th Attack Squadron stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, stated in September 2020 that the abilities of the Reaper drones could be instrumental in regions like the South China Sea. 

As per Tapalla’s statement, the Reapers operating in the Philippines are now fitted with cutting-edge software that allows them to initiate take-off, fly, and execute landing maneuvers autonomously without needing an aircrew outside the United States. 

A US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper, assigned to the 49th Wing, lands at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, on July 6 during Rim of the Pacific 2022. (Lance Cpl. Haley Fourmet Gustavsen/Marine Corps)

This new software enhances the drones’ operational capacity and provides a more efficient and secure mechanism. He explained that the MQ-9 could perform effectively in environments where aircrew and equipment are scarce. 

This exemplifies the concept of agile combat employment, where the drone’s flexibility and versatility are utilized to their maximum potential. Agile combat employment refers to the swift and efficient deployment of aircraft to a network of smaller airfields to evade potential missile attacks during times of war. 

US military forces have been working diligently to refine and develop these skills throughout the Western Pacific region, highlighting the significance of this approach in modern warfare.

Maj. Ryan Chase, another California Guard pilot at Cubi Point, said that during a drill scheduled for April 26, in which US and Philippine forces are slated to sink a large fishing boat off Luzon, Reapers will be employed to provide comprehensive full-motion video footage to the commanders. 

He further noted that the utilization of Reapers in maritime operations is similar to their deployment in land operations, and their integration will aid in monitoring civilian shipping in the vicinity, enhancing situational awareness for troops.

The deployment of the Reaper drones signals a heightened level of cooperation between the US and its regional allies, as they strategically deploy some of their most advanced platforms to counter the increasing threats posed by China.