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174th Attack Wing hosts annual Reaper Smoke MQ-9 exercise

  • Published
  • By Mr. Alexander Rector
  • 174th Attack Wing

SYRACUSE, NY – Fifty-one MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) crews from 36 squadrons across all three components of the United States Air Force gathered in Syracuse, Sept. 21-22 to hone their skills during Exercise Reaper Smoke 2023.

The exercise, which included a competition, pitted MQ-9 pilots and sensor operators from active duty, the Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard against each other during a skills competition to see which crew is the Air Force’s “best of the best.”

Reaper Smoke, first held in 2020, carries on the legacy of Gunsmoke, an Air Force wide air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery, bombing, and rocketry competition.

During the competition, the teams conducted a mission simulation which put their MQ-9 skills to the test.

The simulation, designed by airmen from the 174th Operations Group, tasked the MQ-9 operators with infiltrating hostile airspace and engaging an enemy weapons platform.

“Our scenario was something different and new, and we all got excited about it,” said Capt. Cameron Cooper, the 138th Attack Squadron weapons officer. “They had a half hour to mission plan and a half an hour to execute the mission.”

During the mission the Reaper crews had to use terrain masking to evade surface to air missile sites and fly at low altitude to avoid detection by enemy radar.

Each team received a mission briefing and then was given 30 minutes to plan their strategy before entering the simulator.

“This was a test of not just flying the MQ-9 but taking all the things you do every day and putting them to the test,” said Cooper. “The scenario was very non-standard for an MQ-9 but you always need to be prepared for an emerging threat and for a new way of doing things.”

Reaper Smoke was first held at Whiteman Air Force Base and this year marks the first time the event was hosted by the Air National Guard.

“The 174th Attack Wing had the honor to be the first Air National Guard unit to host Reaper Smoke,” said Lt. Col. Nathanial Johnson, the 174th Attack Wing chief of safety. This year's event was an opportunity to put the guard out there for our active duty and Air Force reserve counterparts and showcase our capabilities.”

In addition to the competition, Reaper Smoke included briefings with leaders from the U.S. Air Force RPA community.

“Each squadron sent one or two crews to compete, but most squadrons also sent the squadron commander and senior enlisted leader to attend briefings,” Johnson said.

Arguably the most important briefing was that of was Maj. Gen. Luke Ahmann, the National Guard director for force structure, resources & assessment. During Ahmann’s briefing, the attendees received insight on the future of the Air Force’s RPA enterprise.

“Reaper Smoke helps develop the RPA community because they get to hear directly from senior leadership,” Johnson said. “They get to hear on the direction of the Air Force and how the RPA enterprise fits into the Air Force vision.”

At the close of the exercise Maj. Aaron Christensen and Master Sgt. James Graham from the 2nd Special Operations Squadron, 919th Special Operations Wing, U.S. Air Force Reserve, out of Hurlburt Field, Fl, were recognized for being the top performing crew.

In keeping with tradition, Hurlburt Field will host next year's Reaper Smoke.

“Everyone put in a lot of work, and they absolutely crushed it,” said Cooper. “I’m looking forward to going to Hurlburt field next year.”