In a mission first, the United States Air Force says it has successfully conducted the first landing on a dirt landing zone of an MQ-9 Reaper, proving the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can be launched and landed from virtually anywhere.
The test flight was carried out at the Nine Mile Training Center, one of the country’s largest private training centers for the U.S. armed forces, according to a statement.
The MQ-9 Reaper, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and operated primarily by the U.S. Air Force, is the first hunter-killer UAV designed for the American military for use with both high-altitude surveillance and long-endurance missions.
However, in past deployments, the UAV has been limited to use where traditional runways and line-of-sight antennas were available.
According to a statement, commandos at the Nine Mile Training Center succeeded in landing an MQ-9 on a dirt landing zone during flight tests that occurred on June 15, 2023.
Lt. Col. Brian Flanigan, 2nd SOS director of operations, called the successful landing “a significant achievement for Air Force Reserve Command, AFSOC, the MQ-9 community, and the joint force as a whole,” proving that “the Reaper can operate anywhere in the world.”
The successful flight demonstration was conducted by members of the 2nd Special Operations Squadron and 727th Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, as well as the 311th Special Operations Intelligence Squadron and personnel with the 26th Special Tactics Squadron based at New Mexico’s Cannon Air Force Base.
Along with the successful landing of the MQ-9 on a dirt landing zone, the flight test also demonstrated the ability to utilize a special travel pod attached to the UAV, which can be used to deliver items to locations that may otherwise be inaccessible during combat situations.
“It may not be able to carry much, but what it can hold, might be the difference between getting that critical aircraft part to an isolated airfield or bringing in a blood supply for casualties sustained during a base attack,” Flanigan said in a statement.
In recent weeks, the MQ-9 Reaper has received attention after it was revealed in April that one of the hunter-killer UAVs succeeded in capturing footage of an unidentified spherical object flying over the Middle East using the drone’s onboard electro-optical capabilities.
The incident is currently being investigated by the Department of Defense’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, as detailed in a Senate hearing earlier this year.
The MQ-9’s recent performance during the successful test in Texas, given such unconventional landing and takeoff conditions, will only expand its suite of critical capabilities, all of which align with the U.S. Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment objectives.
Flanigan says such objectives “[focus] on smaller footprints, distributed operations, and increased survivability while generating combat power.”