The U.S. Marine Corps has now trained 100 pilots to operate its new MQ-9 “Reaper” surveillance drones. This major milestone helps the Marines expand their spy capabilities in the air.
The Corps started leasing the “Reaper” back in 2018 before purchasing the drones in 2020. These bad boys are the Marines’ first “Group 5” unmanned aerial vehicles – the largest armed drone category.
Reapers bring new reconnaissance skills to the table. They can fly higher than 18,000 feet and are heavier than 1,320 pounds. That gives them extended range and flight time for intel missions.
Up until now, the Marines’ drones were smaller “Group 3” models, useful for low-altitude tasks under 18,000 feet.
But the Corps has bigger ambitions. So Reaper units are popping up in Arizona, Maryland, and Hawaii to run spy ops across the Middle East and Asia Pacific.
Having 100 trained Reaper pilots is critical. When the 2022 aviation plan was announced, only 38 pilots were qualified out of 68 needed. Now they’ve met that goal.
The Air Force uses warrant officers as drone pilots. But the Marines stick with commissioned officers, despite a Corps-wide shortage of fixed-wing aviators.
Some leaders suggested getting creative with who flies Reapers. But for now, it’s still officers at the controls.
Even with 100 pilots trained, the Marines plan to have 20 Reapers operational within the decade. That requires even more personnel.
The Corps believes drones like Reaper are essential for reconnaissance operations like border surveillance, tracking weapons smuggling, and supporting combat missions.
Of course, critics argue drone strikes undermine global security when they cause civilian casualties.
But the Marines are all in, rapidly expanding their uncrewed abilities. The MQ-9 milestone means spy drones are taking flight across the Corps.