Palms base some 60 miles east and other Marines in the
command and reporting chain. Several high-definition
monitors showed a live video feed of an MV-22B Osprey
tiltrotor landing near Kilo’s patrol base.
General Atomics is working with a growing demand
for armed Reapers with offensive or defensive strike
capabilities, designing for greater payloads to carry
ordnance and weapons.
“We want to be absolutely best at ‘find’ and ‘fix,’ and
we improve on that all the time,” Byron said. “Since it
can carry weapons, we can do ‘finish’ as well.”
Eyes in the Sky
Two Reapers supported the Marines for the MIX
exercise. General Atomics’ crews flew one mostly for
ISR missions under a contract with the warfighting
laboratory, officials said. The second Reaper, which
supported strike missions and an Aug. 5 live-fire event
with 3/5 Marines, was operated by airmen with the
California Air National Guard’s 163rd Attack Wing at
March Air Reserve Base, Calif.
General Atomics crews, joined by a Marine forward
air controller, flew the Reaper daily for the exercise,
both day and night, providing 15 hours of direct support to the 3/5 Marines on the ground and the 15th
Marine Expeditionary Unit, which served during the
exercise as the expeditionary company landing team’s
Capt. Joe Patterson, Kilo’s company commander,
said the MQ- 9 helped him keep better track of what
was happening across the battlespace. That is critical
as more platoons and teams are dispersed and having
to operate more independently.
Patterson credits a “triad” of technology that gave
Kilo more combat power, made it more successful and
self-sufficient and helped save more lives: Reaper and
smaller hand-held drones, the Polaris MRZR offroad
vehicle and KILSWITCH software in tablets and hand-held devices the warfighting lab provided his Marines.
That triad “allowed me to break the template of
what a normal Marine Corps unit is expected to do,”
Patterson said, speaking Aug. 3 at the desert base as the
MIX exercise wrapped up.
The Reaper’s full-motion live video and imagery
capability, and overhead support over long stretches,
made it easier for the Marines to find and track suspicious activities and watch enemy forces without
putting Marines in danger for a potential ambush. So
when his platoons or their fire teams conducted a mission or moved around the village, Patterson had eyes
on, and in real time.
With its long loiter time and steady links, the
Reaper’s ability to “feed things down to me allowed my
MRZRs to be pushed out into an area,” he said. The
Marines, at times, quickly located armed fighters and
weapons caches, which without eyes in the sky might
have required hours of patrols or presence in contested
or unfriendly areas.
“It allowed us to be unpredictable,” Patterson added.
The warfighting lab equipped the Marines with
smaller drones they controlled and collected data from
onboard sensors using their KILSWITCH devices. It
did not take long for them to find creative ways to use
them, “thinking outside the box,” said 2nd Lt. Casey
Kociuba, Kilo’s executive officer. They used the small
drones to find enemy forces, identify friendly positions
when communications went down and even passed
along notes among the Marines.
Even when they rode their MRZRs on the road, perhaps drawing out an enemy mine or IED-laying team,
Kociuba said, “the Reaper is watching the entire time.”
The KILSWITCH devices gave Patterson his “own
battle-tracking data,” he said. Using it, he could select
the Reaper’s bombs or Hellfire missiles for a strike mission. He could help identify civilians from the enemy
and assess battle damage. By message and chat, he
could share video and information with higher headquarters and even influence enemy information fed to
the public, for example.
In that loop was Staff Sgt. Jon Traylor, one of three
JTACs assigned to Kilo. The JTACs helped guide platoon leaders, who can see imagery and video on their
KILSWITCH tablets and work with the flying crew to
further investigate a vehicle or building, for example,
and even identify a person or target.
Traylor, who recently deployed to Afghanistan,
has worked with the MQ- 9 among other unmanned
systems in supporting ground forces. He controlled
the Reaper armed for the Aug. 5 live-fire exercise that
teamed some Kilo Marines with manned and autonomous unmanned systems, and he sees its benefits for
smaller infantry units.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how it works out,”
Patterson, a 19-year veteran and former helicopter
mechanic, wants to see the Reaper in the inventory as
soon as possible.
“That is something that has to happen, because of
the time-on-station it offers us, the communications
that it offers us,” he said. “It allows for full-blown Sit A
for not just me but for my higher headquarters, which
reduces my reporting requirement.”
And it “saves batteries, batteries I won’t have to
charge,” he added. As part of the yearlong experimenta-
tion, Kilo Company and the battalion are being equipped
with fuel-sipping generators, solar panels and energy-
producing systems to help bolster self-sufficiency and
ease combat resupply. n