The Marine Corps has reached a significant milestone by training 100 leather sailors as MQ-9 Reaper drone pilots in an effort to expand its unmanned drone program and improve its reconnaissance and range capabilities.
This program began in 2018 when the Corps first leased MQ-9 Reapers and subsequently received funding for their acquisition in 2020. The creation of the 7318th Reaper military occupational specialty was a key step in this process.
However, the path has not been without challenges. In the 2022 aviation plan, it was noted that only 38 of the 68 required pilots had been trained and remain commissioned officers, unlike the Air Force, which uses non-commissioned drone pilots.
The MQ-9 Reaper, which first arrived in the US Air Force in 2007, has been used extensively in conflicts such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as in global operations, with more than 300 units operational under the Air Force in 2021.
This drone, classified in Army Group five, exceeds its Group Three predecessors in weight and altitude. Group five drones can weigh more than 1,320 pounds and operate at altitudes above 18,000 feet.
Currently, three Marine Corps units operate the MQ-9 Reaper: VMU-1 in Yuma, Arizona; UX-24 at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Maryland; and VMU-3 at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
VMU-1 pioneered the operational use of the Reaper, providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support since 2018. VMU-24 is an aviation testing unit, while VMU-3 achieved initial operational capability in August, focusing on providing aerial reconnaissance for the 3rd Littoral Marine Regiment.
The Marine Corps plans to establish the MQ-9A Fleet Replacement Squadron at Cherry Point, North Carolina, as part of its expansion with the MQ-9 Reaper.
However, questions have been raised about the Corps ‘ shortage of fixed-wing pilots. Former Commanding General David Berger suggested in January 2023 considering options other than commissioned officers to fly the Reaper, breaking with tradition.
Despite these challenges, the Marine Corps plans to have 20 Reaper drones in its fleet in the next decade, showing its commitment to expanding and modernizing its reconnaissance and range capability.