Hellfires Wanted: It’s Time to Start Tasking Armed Drones as Combat Aircraft
In the U.S. air campaign to capture Raqqa, 20 percent of the munitions deployed came from remotely piloted aircraft. Yet almost all these remote flights were planned, tasked, and executed as intelligence collection missions. Despite its growing reliance on MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones in combat, the U.S. military has no specific employment doctrine for these platforms. Airstrikes from unmanned assets, even when pre-planned, are executed as ad hoc events outside the traditional attack planning process. While U.S. forces were able to operate this way and be successful in counter-terrorism operations, a force employment model where one-fifth of munitions are unplanned and untasked is not sustainable in more complex warfare. As the United States pivots from counter-terrorism to more advanced adversaries, it has updated both the intelligence capability and the firepower of its aircraft. But the procedures for how to plan and task operations have remained static.
In my own experience as an MQ-9 pilot over the past five years, I have repeatedly seen the limitations of treating vital combat assets as if they were simply intelligence gathering platforms. From the MQ-9, I have employed over 40 missiles and bombs, including “danger close” strikes defending American troops. All but one of those was an unplanned re-tasking of a mission flown for intelligence collection. Using intelligence channels to task armed aircraft makes it difficult to effectively prioritize, request, arm, or evaluate strikes. So far, the United States has successfully muddled through with this outdated approach. Against a near-peer threat, however, this will not be possible. A better method for planning and programming remotely piloted sorties is urgently needed.
I was deployed to the Middle East as the theater MQ-9 liaison officer in 2018. On my arrival, I was shocked to discover that many of the remotely piloted missions providing close air support were some of the lowest priorities in the theater. The actual purpose of these missions was armed overwatch of American or allied forces. But the intelligence requirements these flights were tasked with did not rank as highly as other, more technical requests. Of course, there was no need for technical collection, but nominal intelligence requirements were written to justify asset allocation. This led to a bloated and unwieldly mass of intelligence requirements that collection managers struggled to understand. A mission with the potential for close air support is obviously a higher priority than a generic reconnaissance task, but the air component treats them equally since kinetic effects are outside the scope of intelligence asset management.
The problems created by this approach go beyond prioritization. In one revealing example, a U.S. ground team had located a terrorist cell they intended to strike. They required high-definition video, real-time imagery analysis, and a Hellfire missile — notably, a specific variant optimized against structures. Once the imagery was used to confirm the target, they intended to execute a coordinated attack with A-10s and an MQ-9 to kill a high-value commander and multiple fighters. While it was easy to request the video and analytical capability, there was no process to request the specific munition they needed. For strike aircraft, weapons are specified via a Joint Tactical Airstrike Request, but no similar mechanism exists for intelligence platforms. Simply ensuring the mission would be supported was also difficult. The intelligence staff was not able to holistically consider an intelligence-driven strike mission amid hundreds of other generic full-motion video requests. As the liaison officer, I clearly understood what the ground force needed but could not provide it due to the doctrinal limitations of the air component.
By contrast, the A-10 liaison officer received the same request I did, and he was able to identify which aircraft would fly the mission, then ensure that his crews were briefed and his aircraft loaded appropriately well in advance. This provided the pilots with the opportunity to plan and rehearse the strike. I did not have that luxury. In fact, because of the timelines associated with intelligence asset allocation, I could not even identify which aircraft would fly the mission until just before takeoff. This meant that even though I had the Hellfire variant the ground force commander wanted, ground crews would not have time to load the missile before the aircraft needed to be airborne. Despite these shortfalls, the strike killed the enemy commander and some of his associates. If the right missile had been employed, it could have killed all of them. But the requirement for specific sensors and munitions on the same aircraft, at a specific time, was beyond the planning capability of the joint air component.
In 2019 I fired a Hellfire missile that killed an enemy combatant shooting at U.S. troops from less than 50 meters away. My MQ-9 was the only aircraft supporting their operation. “Collection requirements” were used to task that flight, but the soldiers on the ground needed the missiles on the wings far more than they needed intelligence support. Similar incidents have occurred countless times, where technical superiority allowed missions to be successful despite the lack of efficient force management. But because current doctrine does not consider strikes as integral to the execution of an intelligence collection mission, weapons employments are reduced to a footnote in post-mission reporting and their effects are not fully evaluated. My 2019 flight was eminently more effective than a parallel sortie that simply collected imagery. But because the close air support requirement was untasked, its effects could not be attributed in the overall mission assessment.
Commanders need a way to request the resources they need from remotely piloted aircraft. The troops I tried to support in 2018 had a clear requirement but no means to call for it. Strike requests fail to account for the specific sensors and analytical capabilities of intelligence aircraft. Collection requests have no means to support weapons requirements. In future conflicts these errors will be magnified exponentially. What if the requirement was not simply a unique Hellfire but instead an air-to-air missile or a standoff weapon? In Afghanistan, we could fire a suboptimal munition and still be successful. In operations against ballistic missiles, surface-to-air systems, hardened structures, and naval threats, this will not be the case.
Effectively tasking remotely piloted aircraft requires combatant commands to bridge the barriers between intelligence and operations staffs. A planning staff versed in all missions that an aircraft can fulfill is necessary to generate effective tasking. New organizational relationships and processes will be critical to translating technological developments into effective warfighting. The integration of the AIM-9X air-to-air missile with the MQ-9, for example, opens a whole new realm of possibilities for using the same platform for theater air defense and intelligence collection. Effectively executing these roles, though, will require unified planning.
Combat in the “Global War on Terror” was largely confined to specific regions within countries. But war in Europe or Asia could be on a continental scale. Even hostilities with Iran could stretch from the Gulf of Oman to the Mediterranean. Multirole tasking of armed intelligence aircraft, many of which are long endurance and networked, provides a means to distribute sensors and weapons with minimal overhead. Conventional wars with irregular components may create a particular need for Reapers and similar platforms. Though these aircraft have proved highly effective when striking terrorists, defending an aircraft carrier from a small boat swarm is a much more complex effort that requires extensive mission planning. Simply flying armed assets to collect intelligence and trusting that they will be able to respond to hostile acts creates significant, unnecessary risk. A cooperative planning process that synchronizes collection requirements with kinetic roles would yield the integrated tasking necessary to address these challenging missions. What’s more, recognizing armed intelligence assets as distinct from traditional collection platforms will allow planners to appropriately address long-term global force management considerations.
Two decades after Hellfire missiles were placed on the MQ-1, the presence of armed intelligence collection aircraft is no longer a novelty above the battlefield. The joint air component should recognize the unique role of these aircraft and develop an operational doctrine that suits them.
Joe Ritter is an Air Force officer with over five years of combat experience flying the MQ-9 Reaper in conventional and special operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Africa. Previously, aboard the RC-135, he supported strategic reconnaissance efforts in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. He is currently an assistant operations officer and MQ-9 instructor pilot assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command. The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of the Department of Defense.
Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Senior Airman Haley Stevens)