NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The 118th Operations Group (OG) played a crucial and unique role in a massive U.S. and Filipino exercise that showcased the satellite and recovery capabilities of the MQ-9 Reaper.
The Balikatan exercise, held in the Philippines each year, was the largest on record and offered the Reaper an opportunity to demonstrate taxiing, taking off and landing via satellite communication with the pilot, but without ground crews or extensive infrastructure.
“It is being able to get our aircraft into the fight without having to bring the logistical footprint we would normally bring for such an operation,” said Capt. Eric Jensen, an RPA pilot and Balikatan participant with the California Air National Guard’s 163rd Operations Group. “The ability to hop to multiple locations with a minimal footprint, to be able to rearm, refuel and get back into the fight quickly.”
The capability is new to the Reaper and broke ground during the Balikatan exercise.
“This is the first time we have conducted an entire large force exercise exclusively through satellite launch and recovery,” said Lt. Col. Chris Francis, commander of the Tennessee Air National Guard’s 118th OG. “Logistically, the way the exercise has gone down, this has been flown entirely through a Guard cooperation over SATCOM (satellite communication).”
Balikatan also helped foster a new chapter of cooperation between the 118th OG and 163rd OG, both of which fly the Reaper. The 163rd OG provided the Reapers for Balikatan, and sent crew members to Tennessee, said Francis. All flying was conducted from the 118th OG’s mission control center by 118th and 163rd OG pilots.
“The interoperability between any Guard unit is paramount, especially in this day and age,” said Jensen. “To have one unit work with the iron, the other work with the mission set, and then us come together and make the mission happen has just been awesome.”
“I think we created a bridge between the two units that could continue,” said Staff Sgt. Landon Coleman, a sensor operator with the 163rd OG. “We were able to exceed expectations with SLR and show joint forces how capable our airframe can actually be.”
Displaying the SLR abilities at Balikatan also strengthened the growing relationship with the Philippines. Francis said not only did it help normalize Reaper operations within U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, but even Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. viewed the Reaper camera feed flown at the 118th OG.
“Working with the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines was outstanding, seamless to working with any other customer we have had,” said Jensen. “They were very accommodating in working with our airframe for the first time.”
With the progress made in SLR at Balikatan, the Reaper is one step closer to fulfilling the agile combat employment (ACE) concept pioneered by the Department of Defense.
Francis said the Reaper couldn’t reach the ACE concept without SLR. With over 80 hours of flight time at Balikatan, the 118th OG helped fully demonstrate the SLR proof of concept to the DOD.