Reaper Smoke: MQ-9 community advances, builds relationships

  • Published
  • By 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

“What does it mean to be ‘us’?"

This was the question asked by 25th Attack Group commander, Col. Travis Norton, to a room full of MQ-9 Reaper operators and Special Tactics tactical air control party operators during Reaper Smoke, at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, Feb. 21, 2020.

“‘We’re just like a fighter squadron,’” mimed Norton. “That’s how we were trying to define ourselves. We’re not, we’re absolutely nothing like fighter squadrons, we are Reaper Squadrons, Reaper Airmen, and that’s what we’re here to define.”

The 25th ATKG commander gave this speech at the beginning of a gathering of 113 members of the MQ-9 community, British RPA Aircrew, and Special Tactics community, all there to network, build camaraderie, discuss best practices, and compete with others from within the young community that is the Remotely Piloted Aircraft enterprise.

“Being invited out to Reaper Smoke is something we jumped at,” said Senior Master Sgt. Matthew Davis, 17th Special Tactics Squadron flight chief. “We wanted to come out, and meet the men and women of the Reaper community to let them know that we appreciate what they do, what they bring to the fight, and that they’re an invaluable asset to what we do on the battlefield.” 

Normally, interactions between MQ-9 Reaper aircrew and Special Tactics TACPs on the ground are limited to communications leading into either a kinetic strike or in response to calls for close air support in combat. However, Reaper Smoke provided an avenue for not only operators and ST TACPs to practice working together in a challenging training event, but also develop relationships face-to-face outside of the combat environment.

“We’ve been able to talk to people who, otherwise, wouldn’t have known who they’re supporting in person,” Davis shared. “We’ve been able to meet no less than ten people we know we’ve worked with in the last two-to-three years, supporting us either via kinetic strike or via close air support, sometimes with people in danger because of troops in contact.”

Lt. Col. Daniel C., 20th Attack Squadron commander and Reaper Smoke host explained that due to the 24/7/365 nature of combat operations, MQ-9 aircrews, Special Tactics and RPA British partners very rarely get to be in the same room to get to know each other. Reaper Smoke was their opportunity for the entire MQ-9 community to come together.

The two-day conference also included a tactical aircrew competition, where pilot and sensor operator pairs flew the same difficult scenarios to determine who the most skilled duo was.  The scenario focused on a mission against a threat country where operators went after weapons of mass destruction facilities and high value targets.

“From the advanced scenario we put together to have the crews fly, I want them to walk away with an appreciation for staying in the books, and pushing the limits on advanced capabilities so they’re ready for the next fight,” Daniel C. said.

The winners of the tactical competition were Airmen of the 3rd Special Operations Squadron, located at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.

“I thought it was a great scenario,” said a 3rd SOS weapons officer. “It didn’t really matter what your background was or what squadron you came from, it tests every crew the same way. It’s a great test of who has the best (mission execution) skills from across the squadrons.”

Along with competing in simulated scenarios, aircrew from the various U.S. Air Force Active Duty, Reserve, Air National Guard, and the British Air Force, met and cross-talked regarding their best practices.  They also competed in the field of friendly battle at a highly successful Crud tournament. 

“Events like Reaper Smoke help us see we all have common ground,” said Lt. Col. Daniel S., 89th Attack Squadron commander. “There are other people in similar situations and we can help each other to become better tactical aviators.”

Impressed by the success of the event, and dedicated to keeping the MQ-9 Reaper Enterprise on the edge of tactics, technology and warfighting, the 432nd WG/432nd AEW leadership see promise in Reaper Smoke’s longevity.

“It’s already proving to be something we should have started much earlier,” Daniel C. said. “We’ll absolutely continue this effort because of how important it is as a community to all know each other.”