• Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Joseph Pagan
  • 163d Attack Wing

MORENO VALLEY, CA. -- On the 23rd of June, 2022 the 163d Attack Wing (ATKW) successfully leveraged the use of multi-capable Airman (MCA) and the MQ-9 Reaper’s autonomous capabilities to showcase the indispensability of the platform against near-peer adversaries.

As part of Exercise Rhino Strike, the 163d ATKW, along with its maintenance and operations crew successfully coordinated with Joint Terminal Attack Controllers assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) to successfully prosecute multiple sea bound and ground targets.
“We are talking about multiple domains of warfighting and getting these planes on the leading edge. No one is telling the 163d to go out and push the boundaries. They are doing it to provide whatever the combatant commander needs,” said Captain Jedidiah, an instructor pilot with the 492d Attack Squadron. “I don’t need a huge logistical chain anymore, give me a half a dozen Airmen and I’m ready to go.”

“The ability of the aircraft to take off and land without any input from the pilot allows us to keep our operations crew back at home, only requiring a small number of multi-capable Airmen to move forward with recovering, rearming, refueling and redeploying the aircraft back into the battle space,” said Master Sgt. Eric Hurley, the avionics flight chief for the 163d Maintenance Group. 
Exactly as Hurley attested, the pilots and aircrew remained safely at home while a small, mobile team of MCA was assembled and provided transport to San Clemente Island via the 129th Rescue Wing’s HC-130J Combat King II.  

After the short 30 minute flight the small crew wasted no time and rapidly offloaded their equipment where they stood ready and eager to perform their duties upon the successful completion of an MQ-9 autonomous landing. 

These multi-capable airmen are trained to be proficient in multiple jobs. “We are a five man crew, but we are all trained to fulfill each other's roles. Said Technical Sgt. Michael Ellis, a Non-Commissioned officer assigned to the 163d Aircraft Maintenance Squadron who led the MCA team during the exercise. 

“I myself am a crew chief by trade, but I additionally load live weapons,” said Ellis.
“Together, our small team completed seven maintenance actions and over 120 specific tasks to safely, recover, refuel and rearm this MQ-9.” 

Ellis said his team set a new record by completing all tasks well under the allotted time. “Given the operational necessity, I’m confident my crew could turn and burn at least 15 aircraft in 12 hours. I work with these guys daily and am persuaded their proficiency is unmatched, it's not a theory. We proved it again today,” he continued.

When speaking about the surveillance capabilities of the MQ-9 Jedidiah said, “We don’t need a ground element or [Civil Engineering Squadron] to survey an airstrip, our crew can remotely collect and analyze data, perform an autonomous landing then share that data with all units.”

“The MQ-9 is the custodian of situational awareness,” said Jedidiah. “The applications of the platform are limitless.” 

“I have been a JTAC for over six years and had no issues coordinating with the 163d ATKW to prosecute targets,” said Marine Staff Sgt. David, a JTAC assigned to Marine Raider Support Group, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. “Their tactics, techniques and procedures are superior.”

With the required fuel and munitions provided by the MCA team, the MQ-9 completed an additional autonomous take-off where it dispatched its remaining ordnance and returned home. 

Proud of the new standard they set and confident in their abilities, the MCA crew rapidly loaded all equipment and personnel back onto the HC-130J aircraft and returned home safely. 

The 163d Operations Group Commander, Col. Jeffrey Shaw said, Exercise Rhino Strike highlighted how far the 163d has come in its ability to seamlessly fly to an austere environment and execute the Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concept with a small team of MCA. 

“In only a short period of time we have taken the [Chief of Staff of The Air Force’s] intent and with our joint partners we have developed a capability that will allow the MQ-9 to be a more capable asset in our next fight,” said Shaw.

Jedidiah said this isn’t just about the indispensability of the MQ-9, this is also about the indispensability of the 163d Attack Wing’s application of the platform. 

“This unit doesn’t just apply the MQ-9 to meet the standard of ACE, it sets it,” said Jedidiah.

Maj. Thanh, The Officer in command of Air Force Assets during the exercise said, these mobile MCA teams along with the autonomous capabilities of the MQ-9 furthers the platform's lethality. 

“We have reduced our footprint by 75 percent and can mobilize anywhere around the world without requiring an established air base,” said Thanh. “Our adversaries should be aware our reach is global and the 163d stands ready to answer the nation's call on short notice with extreme precision.”