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Double the firepower: MQ-9 tests flying with eight Hellfire missiles

The Air Force last month conducted the first flight of an MQ-9A Reaper that had been configured to carry eight AGM-114 Hellfire missiles — twice the number the drone normally carries.

The 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada conducted the flight test on Sept. 10, the Air Force said in a Wednesday release.

A software upgrade expected to be rolled out to MQ-9s by the end of the calendar year made the expanded Hellfire capacity possible, the Air Force said. In the past, Reapers could carry no more than four Hellfires, two on the outboard station of each wing.

But with the upgrade, stations that were previously used for fuel tanks or 500-pound bombs can be used for Hellfires.

Master Sgt. Melvin French, the program’s test system configuration manager, said in the release that the hardware and launchers that now can be used to carry Hellfires are the same as the original stations used.

“Aside from the extra hardware required to be on-hand, no other changes are required to support this new capability and added lethality,” French said in the release. "The Reaper retains its flexibility to fly 500-pound bombs on any of these stations, instead of the AGM‑114s, when mission requirements dictate.”

Adding the flexibility to carry more Hellfires will let the Reaper meet the needs of both Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operations Command, the release said.

In the past, the Air Force said, the Reaper has run out of firepower during its long missions, which sometimes resulted in waits for a freshly armed backup to arrive before a target could be struck.

The Air Force needs the Reaper to be able to find and immediately strike high-priority targets — some of whom are only vulnerable for fleeting periods of time — as well as defend friendly forces isolated on the ground. Giving the Reaper more firepower will allow it to keep engaging the enemy during its long sorties, which often go for hours on end.

“History has proven the MQ-9′s ability to provide aerial continuity and attack support for air and ground forces during counter-insurgency and close air support,” said 556th commander Lt. Col. Michael Chmielewski. “Doubling the firepower of this high-endurance aircraft with Hellfires improves the lethality and agility of the MQ-9 over many combat roles, with an arsenal of highly versatile, accurate, and collateral-friendly weapons for all combatant commanders.”

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