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In a first-of-its-kind exercise, the Air Force carried out live fire weapons training over the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola this month.

The Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA, is a larger, more capable version of its more well-known brother, the MQ-1 Predator. The Reapers demonstrated a wide range of weapons capability firsts during the air-to-ground training, part of an Air Force Weapon System Evaluation Program based out of Duke Field in Okaloosa County.

More than 200 airmen from the U.S. Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada participated in the maritime exercise, along with 20 other DoD organizations and several other Air Force aircraft.

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Senior Airman Wyatt marshals an MQ-9 Reaper on the flightline March 15, at Duke Field, Fla. (Susan Garcia/Special to The Pulse)

In 2015, the first Reaper successfully fired missiles at maritime targets. As maritime threats to the U.S. and its allies increase worldwide, the Air Force says it is vital for RPA teams to understand the strategic importance of firing over water.

“Air Force Reaper crews better know how to find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess maritime targets and do so in an integrated fashion,” said Lt. Col. Bryan Callahan, commander of the RPA squadron.

The Air Force also carried out the first maritime RPA ripple attacks, where the Reaper fired two missiles simultaneously against boats, bank angle shots, and utilized a new software version.

“Every time we fly in the U.S., it’s a strategic win because we show RPAs are not dangerous, we are able to fly safely in FAA airspace, and execute the mission,” said Maj. Marcus Kollross, lead evaluator for the exercise. “We have a very capable platform and weapon system.”

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A laser-guided GBU-10 dropped from an Air Force aircraft targets a mobile surface vehicle at a training range in the Gulf of Mexico. (U.S. Air Force/Special to The Pulse)

The Reapers participated with Air Force fighter jets, Navy helicopters, and other platforms, such as the U-28 and E-8.

“The integration of multiple aircraft gives units an opportunity to accomplish joint training that we don’t often get a chance to do until thrust into a combat scenario,” said Kollross.

For Reaper operations, multiple Air Force units collaborated to establish an operating location on the Gulf Coast. The Reapers came from Creech Air Force, Nevada, the Texas Air National Guard in Houston provided the ground control station (the cockpit from which the pilots and sensor operators control the Reapers) and two Reaper teams. The Reaper Aircraft Maintenance Unit from Holloman AFB, New Mexico sent equipment (ground data terminal antenna, etc.) and a maintenance crew who set up the infrastructure.

“In order to pull off a mission like this, it takes a lot of coordination to piecemeal it together,” said Senior Master Sgt. Seth, 49th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron superintendent. “The coordination, logistics, and communication among all the units is the biggest lesson learned. Just to have all of this equipment brought together and up and running within a week is a tremendous win.”

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Senior Airman Frank watches as an MQ-9 Reaper taxis on the flightline March 15, at Duke Field, Fla., after completing the day’s mission. (Susan Garcia/Special to The Pulse)

One of the most unique elements to the exercise is the opportunity to strike swarms of boats. In fact, the Gulf Coast is the only place in the U.S. where such maritime operations are conducted.

In these simultaneous missions against 30-35 boats at a time, the boats rocket toward a vital U.S. asset, often breaking ranks to rejoin a few moments later.

“No one else in the DoD does these swarms to the level that we do,” said Kollross. “We try to make it as realistic as possible. It takes a whole team, including community members who offer up their time and boats to make our military force stronger and prepared for any possible global threat.”

Overall, the Air Force achieved a 100 percent success rate in the defeat against their maritime targets, utilizing a combination of Hellfire missile variants.

“The team effort required to secure participation from the MQ-9 community in Combat Hammer was immense,” said Lt. Col. Sean Neitzke, the Reaper squadron commander. “It was a key step toward normalizing RPA training in the United States, and an important milestone for the Air Force.”

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