Military practices using drones for maritime surveillance in Hawaii


As the U.S. military shifts its focus from the Middle East to the Pacific, it turns to drones to extend its reach across the vast blue expanse.

Two Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drones flew from the Americas to Hawaii for the first time earlier this month, and they conducted daily sorties at sea and over the Pohakuloa training area on the Big Island as part of Exercise ACE Reaper.

It is an introduction of “hunter-killer” drones in the islands. As much as six of the planes are expected to be stationed permanently at the Kaneohe Marine Base as part of a major force overhaul that begins in Oahu. But the Marines have said they have no plans to arm their drones in Hawaii – at least not now.

“The MQ-9 has long been central command’s most requested asset in the Middle East theater of operations,” Col. Ryan Keeney, 49th Wing commander at Holloman Air Force Base, said Monday on Monday. New Mexico. . “We know that as we start to move away from the Middle East, we will need to be in many different places in a short time. “

An Air Force crew prepares an MQ-9 Reaper for operations at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay during Exercise ACE Reaper. Kevin Knodell / Civil Beat / 2021

Keeney spoke in a conference room in a well-used hanger at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, as his Airmen outside prepared to launch one of the Reapers for a training sortie.

The month-long exercise, which ends Oct. 8, focuses on integrating drones into the Air Force’s “Agile Combat Employment” – or ACE – strategy which has included aircraft and aircraft deployments. troops in the Pacific Islands to distribute forces to make them more difficult for Chinese missiles to attack. This is the third iteration of the exercise, but the first to involve Hawaii.

Three reapers take part in it. One flew directly from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada on a flight that 9 Attack Squadron commander Lt. Col. Jaime Olivares said took about 13.5 hours. A second flew from Holloman – making a brief pit stop in California to refuel – and a third arrived in Oahu by plane. No actual ammunition was used.

Although the military is already using drones in Hawaii, this is the first time the Reapers have flown in the islands. The different branches operate a variety of small drones for reconnaissance operations. The Reaper would be the tallest, with a wingspan of 66 feet and the ability to travel much higher and further.

Military personnel around the world began to experiment with the use of remote control aircraft as early as World War I, but it was not until after the Vietnam War that they began to see serious applications. By the 2000s, the US military had come to see great potential in drones, which can be controlled remotely by pilots located far away through a series of satellite networks.

For example, the Reapers in Hawaii are controlled by troops in Holloman, where the military trains all of its Reaper pilots.

However, the Pacific poses new challenges for the Army’s drone force. Keeney said the military has grown accustomed to using drones from large bases in the Middle East for years. In the Pacific, they examine drones that jump between distant islands, potentially operating from several makeshift runways.

“A lot of our equipment was sized to go to a main base of operations where we would be for weeks, months or years,” Keeney said. “What if you just need to be there for a day or a week?” How much equipment do you need? What maintainers do you need? “

Although drones are considered “unmanned” aircraft, they still depend on the crews below to operate, repair, power, and launch them.

Keeney said the Air Force plans to train “versatile aviators” to be able to work on different planes from various airfields in the region. “We have the ability to be in multiple locations so that we are not locked into one main operating base,” he explained.

Olivares said the exercise has been successful so far.

“What we’ve done here specifically is take a team of five to launch a plane when it comes back and land, service it and take it off,” Olivares said. “Our goal was to do it in less than an hour and so far we’ve far exceeded it.”

“Surveillance and reconnaissance”

Ocean and island hopping operations are relatively new tasks for the MQ-9. Olivares said they were doing two to three sorties a day as part of the exercise – and that drone operators in New Mexico have a direct line with the Marines on the ground in Pohakuloa to coordinate.

“They talk to the Marines and perform close air support over the Big Island, things they’ve never been able to do before, which makes them a better-trained student,” Olivares said.

An MQ-9 Reaper drone takes off from an airfield at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay. Kevin Knodell / Civil Beat / 2021

The Reaper is the successor to the MQ-1 Predator, which was originally designed as a scout, but was later upgraded to fire Hellfire missiles. The Reaper was specially designed as a “hunter-killer” drone. But the Marines have said they have no plans to arm their drones in Hawaii – at least not now.

“Our service envisions distributed teams of Marines that can hunt an opponent’s ships visually or electronically using any sensors and capabilities available to them,” the Marines said in a statement. “Our current operational vision for MQ-9 here in Hawaii does not call for arming Marine Corps MQ-9s at this time, but rather using them for surveillance and reconnaissance.”

Drones were a central tool in the military and CIA covert operations against terrorism that relied on them for surveillance and targeted assassinations. But the accuracy of these operations has been hotly debated.

During the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan, a drone struck what the military initially described as a suicide bomber after Islamic State militants killed 13 US servicemen and more than 150 Afghan civilians in a bombing. bomb near Kabul airport.

But the Pentagon later admitted that the strike actually killed 10 civilians and no activists.

Even as the war in Afghanistan is over, tensions have escalated in the Pacific as the United States competes with China for influence in the region. The Marine Corps reorganized its forces with an emphasis on island and coastal combat.

“We are training Marines right now at Holloman Air Force Base,” Keeney said. “And I have full confidence that the Marines, when they get their MQ-9s, are going to love them.”

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