The U.S. Air Force is deploying MQ-9 Reapers in the Indo-Pacific for the first time under a newly reactivated squadron on the edge of the East China Sea.

The 319th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron at Kanoya Air Base in southern Japan formally began operations Sunday under the command of Lt. Col. Alexander Kelly, the Air Force said Tuesday.

It’s the latest iteration of a unit that was first created as a fighter squadron in New York in 1942, and last served as a training squadron in Florida until 1977.

Now, the 319th will provide eyes in the sky over east Asia in support of joint U.S.-Japan intelligence objectives and “to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the service said.

Its patrols could help collect information about Chinese military activity in the area — including signs it may be preparing to invade Taiwan — and that of North Korea, which recently fired a ballistic missile over Japan.

“This will enhance the joint ability to respond to threats and emerging situations, while strengthening the alliance,” the Air Force said. “MQ-9s can be used to cooperatively address regional challenges such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and other issues affecting the Indo-Pacific.”

Reapers are typically used to conduct airstrikes as well, but will not be armed for reconnaissance missions.

The Air Force has struggled to chart a path forward for the MQ-9 fleet outside of U.S. Central Command, where the drones have redefined modern war as a pivotal counterterror asset in the past two decades.

After multiple attempts to convince Congress to let it cease MQ-9 purchases from drone manufacturer General Atomics, the Air Force may get its wish in the coming year.

The service hopes to shrink its Reaper fleet from 351 to 276 aircraft by the end of fiscal 2023, and stop production altogether. It fears the aircraft could become easy targets for Chinese air defenses in a potential war, and wants to funnel that money toward higher-priority acquisition programs.

“The most recent briefing to the committee indicated that the Air Force intends to remove well over half of the existing aircraft from the MQ-9 fleet by fiscal year 2027,” the House Armed Services Committee wrote in July.

Despite earlier disagreements with DOD, lawmakers appear willing to curtail the MQ-9 program in the defense policy and spending bills now moving through Congress. But some still want more information about what the fleet has to offer outside of CENTCOM.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has asked the Pentagon’s cost assessment office to produce a financial outlook for the MQ-9 program, including the price of its current and future missions, by Feb. 1, 2023.

“Some have suggested that the MQ-9 still has a role in great power competition,” the panel said in its report accompanying the fiscal 2023 defense policy bill. “Supporters of continued MQ-9 employment have asserted that the MQ-9 possesses similar survivability as other fourth-generation aircraft, and there is no reason that they could not operate in threat environments similar to F-15s or F-16s.”

The House Armed Services and Appropriations committees are also looking for more transparency on efforts to modernize the current fleet with upgraded communications and electronic warfare technology, among other gear.

The U.S. has included Reapers in its training exercises in the Indo-Pacific for years. The experiments help gauge how well the drones — which are far more vulnerable to bad weather and battlefield threats than manned aircraft — could perform in the region.

The MQ-9 schoolhouse at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, in 2020 rewrote its syllabus with a greater focus on the tactics needed for more challenging missions in the Indo-Pacific.

“It incorporates maritime interdiction capabilities, it incorporates a lot more major contingency operation capabilities, air interdiction,” 29th Attack Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Brian Davis said at the time. “It reinvigorates our strike coordination and reconnaissance capability, and it also increases our combat search and rescue capability.”

More recently, the MQ-9 has appeared at major exercises from the Navy’s massive Rim of the Pacific event to the biennial Valiant Shield.

It’s been tasked with maritime surveillance and target tracking, among other missions, in a shift away from its usual training over remote strips of land.

“The data that we have in a simulator feeds off of real-world engagements like [sinking exercises],” Air National Guard Capt. Phillip West, the MQ-9 maritime force integration lead at RIMPAC, said in a press release. “They’re trying to build a database of what ships look like. … Then they can fit it into a simulator so we can practice it and have more efficient training.”

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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