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US Air Force begins tests of 3 different pods for Reaper capability upgrade

An MQ-9 Reaper with three Ghost Reaper pods awaits takeoff at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, N.Y., April, 14, 2021. Photo: US Air Force

The US Air Force’s 174th Attack Wing has started test flights with three separate pods that are supposed to bring enhanced capabilities to the service’s MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft.

The New York Air National Guard unit partnered with multiple Pentagon contractors and academia to lead the effort in evaluating new and additional capabilities for the Reaper.

According to the assistant director of operations at the 174th Operations Support Squadron, there are three separate pods; the Freedom Pod, the Centerline Avionics Bay Pod and the REAP Pod. Each pod is manufactured by a contractor which specializes in its unique function, leveraging expertise from previous programs.

From May 3-14th, the pods will demonstrate their capabilities onboard a 174TH ATKW MQ-9 focusing on a higher level of integration with additional air and ground based assets during Pacific Command’s premier exercise, Northern Edge, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.

“We are currently doing an operational assessment of new equipment,” the assistant director of operations said. When asked what will come of the aircraft, the assistant director of operations explained it will build future capabilities in additional areas of responsibility.

The pods help the MQ-9 play an increased, more prominent role in the command and control arena of the battlefield. It will be able to receive and pass information to and from older fourth generation and newer fifth-generation aircraft.

This mission is solely an Air National Guard mission funded by The National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account funds. The funds were leveraged for modernization since ANG only operates legacy aircraft.

It is worth noting that Air Force Life Cycle Management Center is also working on introducing a new configuration for the Reaper, dubbed the MQ-9 Multi-Domain Operation (M2DO).

M2DO will introduce improved anti-jamming capability, an upgraded electro-optical/infra-red sensor and the ability to carry new types of weapons. The air force said earlier this year it would also retrofit a portion of the already fielded MQ-9 fleet to the same M2DO configuration. The air force is investing in the upgrade in order for the MQ-9 to remain operationally viable for world-wide operations through the end of the platforms projected service life of 2035.