The US Air Force has revealed that an MQ-9 Reaper uncrewed aircraft successfully shot down a smaller drone with a heat-seeking air-to-air missile in a test last November. The details, provided by Col. Julian Cheater, commander of the 432nd Wing, came in an interview with Military.com at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference in Washington, DC, yesterday.
The Air Force’s Air Combat Command has been exploring ways to arm the MQ-9 with air-to-air weapons since 2003. That was when the Air Force was preparing to issue a contract to General Atomics for the uncrewed aircraft, which was known at the time as the Predator-B. Much of the problem has been that the MQ-9, which is flown over a satellite communications link by Air Force operators, lacks the kind of sensors a fighter aircraft would use to track and target other aircraft. Its Lynx multimode radar is a synthetic aperture radar intended for tracking surface targets on land and sea and for providing ground imaging—but not for searching for other aircraft. Its other sensors (other than navigational cameras) were intended for tracking things below as well. And the MQ-9 lacks the sort of electronic-warfare sensors and countermeasures of crewed combat aircraft.
However, the Reaper’s Multispectral Targeting System (MTS) has proven to be usable for tracking some types of flying targets. In 2016, the latest version of MTS, the MTS-C, successfully tracked missile launches in a test conducted by the Missile Defense Agency. The MTS-C added long-wave infrared to the short and medium infrared wavelength sensors used in previous versions, allowing the sensor to track “cold body” objects.