Aircraft Seen Flying Together May Hint at Possible F-35/MQ-9 Interoperability.
During an interesting sighting on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019 on the eastern boundary of the Nellis Test & Training Range, we watched an F-35A flying in atypically close proximity to two MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft. While unverified, the sighting of the two aircraft flying closely together in altitude and position may suggest the possible development of some degree of interoperability between the USAF’s F-35A Lightning II and the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft.
Russia has already revealed a program of claimed interoperability between their latest Sukhoi Su-57, NATO code name “Felon”, fighter aircraft and the recently unveiled Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik or “Hunter” remotely piloted aircraft.
In a May 22, 2019 report for DefenseNews.com, reporter Valerie Insinna wrote that, “The F-35 and F-15EX fighter jets could get drone wingmen in the coming years…” Insinna was reporting on the Air Force’s “Skyborg” program, a new system of interoperability between the F-35A, F-15EX and the XQ-58 Valkyrie remotely piloted aircraft. The report also hinted that the Skyborg program may include other remotely piloted aircraft in addition to the XQ-58. This could include the MQ-9.
Generally speaking several air forces are considering the idea of tethering together stealth aircraft and unmanned platforms working in the “loyal wingman” role.
Thursday’s sighting was west of the Great Basin Highway in Lincoln County, Nevada on the Badger Valley Road trail used to gain access to the Tikaboo Peak area.
While we were unable to get a photo of both the F-35A and the MQ-9s in the same frame, we did manage to catch a distant photo of the last MQ-9 of the three aircraft group passing over our position. We shot the photo using a Sigma 600mm zoom lens. The remotely piloted MQ-9 appeared to be at an altitude of about 1,000 feet, with the F-35A that passed over only seconds before at slightly higher altitude.
The three aircraft we saw, two MQ-9s and the F-35A, were preceded by two flights of two aircraft, likely F-16s, flying in typical two-plane echelon formations and at significantly higher altitude than the F-35A and the two MQ-9s.
After our first sighting, when we managed to snap off just a few long-range photos of the last MQ-9 in the formation, all aircraft flew back westward into the restricted part of the Nellis Test & Training Range often times referred to as “Area 51”.
While our sighting on Thursday certainly doesn’t verify the Air Force’s “Skyborg” program is being tested at Area 51 now, it was noteworthy enough to report on. It will be interesting to ask F-35A pilots of the nearby 57th Wing at Nellis AFB about the sighting during this weekend’s Aviation Nation airshow, where an MQ-9 Reaper is scheduled to make a demonstration fly-by during the show, the first major airshow fly-by of a remotely piloted aircraft in the U.S.