🔷 Reaper Down

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Credit: AI

Reaper Down

A US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper was shot down off the coast of Yemen by Houthi fighters this week, marking the second MQ-9 shootdown in three months in the region by surface-to-air missile systems (SAMS).

This adds to the MQ-9 assessed shootdown over Iraq last month and the other Houthi shootdowns of MQ-9s you already forgot about in 2019 and 2020. The RQ-4 Global Hawk isn’t in the clear either; Iran shot one down in 2019.

There’s probably been another lumbering defenseless drone shot down by surface-launched missiles over the Middle East in the past couple of years. We’ve lost track by now, and so have you. We totally made up one of those shoot-downs, and you didn’t even blink an eye.

Kidding aside, with each loss comes a growing chorus from social media warriors that claim the MQ-9 is an obsolete GWOT relic, it’s too expensive (~$12-30m depending on the source), and that [insert new defense tech widget] would have been the better tool for the job.

They are right to raise questions; any professional should welcome continual assessments of the ends, ways, and means that go into their trade. Are they right? Maybe, but none of these voices are asking the right question: why do these drones seem to keep running into missiles?


Is it that the MQ-9 was designed for an environment of air superiority? No. As with all aircraft, it was designed for a purpose—in this case, long-endurance ISR. Subscribing to this argument means you’d have to also include most bombers, all mobility aircraft—and all of Army aviation—into this air superiority logic. All of these aircraft were designed to play a role/mission in force design, and this argument’s fatal flaw is over-simplification. [side note: most people who believe this aren’t even using the term ‘air superiority’ correctly; another critical flaw in the logic train.]

Is it because they are defenseless? Partly. The MQ-9s the US Air Force operates carry no defensive systems. Nada. Not even warning equipment. Studies going back a decade recommended the Air Force add countermeasures to the MQ-9. An RWR was first integrated and flown on the MQ-9 in 2017 (but not fielded), and General Atomics even self-funded a self-protection pod (with RWR, EW, and countermeasures) in 2021. Good or bad, not putting an ounce of defensive capability onto the MQ-9 was a deliberate choice by the Air Force. Now that the Marine Corps is buying MQ-9s, they will have a similar cost-benefit-narrative choice to make.

Is it how they are being used? Yes. This is more about policy and employment and less about the merits of the technology. Here’s the deal: Combatant commanders employ forces provided to them. If you were in charge and had an unmanned aircraft that could loiter for 20+hours with a multitude of EO/IR and RF sensors providing sensor feeds to anyone with a secure internet connection, wouldn’t you want to use it as much as possible and simply accept the risk that it could be shot down?

It might be unpopular to think it’s the right tool for the right job in these situations, but the commanders have what they have, and it is what it is.

Consider this: when you must collect intel on an area, and the data says there’s a 0.00033% (repeating, of course) chance of your drone being shot down—what would you do?

Finally, all risk is relative, as we memesplained here and here.

The Future

It would be ignorant to think the MQ-9 will fly until the end of time (or they’re all shot down) or that the Air Force isn’t looking at future alternative options to fulfill long-duration unmanned aerial surveillance. They started shaping this conversation in 2020.

Note the deliberate choice of words. Alternatives is binary—this or that. It’s naive logic, but what fills most social media threads. Professionals know that all modern defense strategies are based on options—not alternatives.

You don’t win a football game with a pass or a play, not how matter how good it may be. You win by executing an offensive campaign based on a comprehensive playbook. Modern US strategy is the way—it’s all about fielding options in order to create an artful combination of multiple dilemmas for an adversary. The more options, the better.

The MQ-9 will remain an option well into the 2030s, so the next obvious question: What are some of the other emerging options and paradigm shifts for performing the long-endurance ISR mission?

To be continued…

In That Number

$48.6 billion

The plan to upgrade the Air Force’s 76-bomber B-52 fleet is projected to cost $48.6 billion.


What were researchers attempting to develop in World War II when they inadvertently invented superglue?

A) heat-resistant canopies for jets
B) spray-on bandages for battlefield wounds
C) clear gunsights for weapons

On the Radar

The UK announced a new military drone strategy—and funding for it. Based on the fallout of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the UK plans to spend $5.7B over the next decade to transform itself into a world leader of drone manufacturing.

  • The Merge’s Take: The plan will focus on producing drones for 4 key mission areas: naval mine clearance, one-way attack, heavy lift, and ISR. In the near term, expect to see an increased flow of tech from the UK into Ukraine. Longer-term, we imagine there will be several opportunities for US-UK companies to join forces to get access to the funding and accelerate British production.  


Lockheed Martin is jumping into…the computer chip business. You read that right. LockMart is teaming with chip maker GlobalFoundries to make domestic semiconductors with an eye on military applications.

  • The Merge’s Take: The announcement was 6+ months ago, but we’re highlighting it now because GlobalFoundries was just awarded $1.5B (with a B) from the US government to expand chip production in New York—where the teaming announcement was first made. This is the largest grant yet from the 2022 CHIPS Act.


The Navy’s first MQ-25 Stingray test drone was delivered to the Navy is being prepped for instrumentation. The MQ-25 that you may have seen flying before was a pre-production demonstrator known as T1.

  • The Merge’s Take: The Navy's first operational carrier-based unmanned aircraft is basic, but still running into cost and schedule issues. Boeing was awarded the contract in 2018, with planned operational fielding in 2024. The first test drone is still being built though, so that’s obviously not going to happen. The latest timeline is now late 2026, but its maiden carrier deployment is TBD. Stated another way, the MQ-25 is likely to hit 10 years from contract to combat.


Turkey’s indigenous 5th-gen fighter flew for the first time. Dubbed Kaan, it’s built by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) and will be replacing the nation’s F-16 fleet.

  • The Merge’s Take: TAI’s 5th-gen fighter fills a void in the market—selling to nations who can’t get approval to buy F-35s. Turkey is already eyeing the Middle East and Asia for export. Don’t worry too much yet though; it’s likely to be another 6-9 years before the first operational version is in service.

They Said It
“The past few years are equal to the prior 20 years.”

Myles Walton, a military industry analyst at Wolfe Research, on America’s rise of arms sales and production.

The charts are worth the click.

Knowledge Bombs

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C) clear plastic gunsights. If A and B sound plausible, it’s because they’re also part of super glue’s story. The formula was set aside for years, until it was rediscovered in the 1950s while looking at jet canopy polymers. It was then adapted as a spray-on bandage during the Vietnam War.