The Corps doesn’t own or operate its own MQ-9 Reapers, but Marines deployed to Helmand province, Afghanistan, are looking to bring the iconic hunter-killer drone to support operations in the unstable province.

The Defense Department announced on Tuesday that the Navy has awarded a contract of $39,566,023 to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. to provide unmanned aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support “using contractor-owned/contractor-operated MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air systems.”

According to officials with Naval Air Systems Command, or NAVAIR, the contract is new and the first time the Corps has made such a request for contractor MQ-9 support for Marines with Task Force Southwest operating out of the Helmand valley.

In January, NAVAIR submitted a presolicitation message on the government’s business opportunities website seeking group five unmanned aerial systems support for the Marines in Helmand.

While the Corps already receives MQ-9 support from the Air Force, NAVAIR stated the request was “to augment the existing ISR capabilities.”

Corps officials were relatively vague regarding the reasons for the requested MQ-9 support.

“I cannot delve into specifics due to operational security concerns with a deployed unit, but there is no ‘deterioration of security’ within TFSW [Task Force Southwest] ― this contract is merely to support ongoing operations,” Capt. Christopher Harrison, a Marine spokesman, told Marine Corps Times recently in an emailed statement.

Helmand is one of the most unstable and violent provinces in Afghanistan. According to a recent government watchdog report, nine out of its 14 districts are either under Taliban control or contested.

A nearly 300 Marine task force has been busy training and advising Afghan troops in the region to push back militant gains and reclaim lost territory. That unit is now in its second rotation.

A Marine with Task Force Southwest halts during a security patrol near Bost Airfield, Afghanistan, March 13. (Sgt. Sean J. Berry/Marine Corps)
A Marine with Task Force Southwest halts during a security patrol near Bost Airfield, Afghanistan, March 13. (Sgt. Sean J. Berry/Marine Corps)

In October, Task Force Southwest bolstered its security by reintroducing The M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, system to Helmand. That rocket system has had devastating effects destroying Taliban narcotics revenue streams and removing key leaders from the battlefield.

The Corps is now looking to contract Reaper support in the region.

The Reaper contract is expected to be completed by November 2018. That means the Reapers will likely be providing intelligence and surveillance support during the upcoming Afghan parliamentary elections slated for October.

The Corps doesn’t own or operate MQ-9s, they are primarily flown by the U.S. Air Force. The Reapers in Helmand will be contractor operated.

But the Corps has been sending Marines to train with the Air Force on piloting Reapers in preparation for the Corps’ future MUX drone.

The MUX will be the Corps first group five drone. The MUX will serve as an airborne early warning, electronic attack, and communications relay drone.

The contractor operated drones will be unarmed.