A Marine squadron has become the only Marine unit in the Indo-Pacific to reach an early operational milestone with MQ-9 Reaper drones, according to the Corps.

Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3, also known as the Phantoms, on Wednesday celebrated reaching initial operational capability with the remotely piloted aircraft at a ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, according to a Marine Corps news release.

As the Marine Corps has undergone sweeping transformation with an eye toward potential conflict with China, the service’s leadership has increasingly emphasized reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance.

The MQ-9A Reaper, which is primarily designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, has an endurance of greater than 20 hours and can fly to an altitude of up to 25,000 feet, according to the Corps’ 2022 aviation plan.

The Phantoms will provide aerial reconnaissance for the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment, a new kind of Marine unit based in Hawaii created as part of the Force Design restructuring, according to the release.

The 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment is supposed to be a “stand-in force” ever-present within reach of strikes from China. The regiment is set to reach initial operational capability in September 2023 and full operational capability two years after that, a Marine spokesman previously told Marine Corps Times.

Although the drones will serve as “the airborne quarterback” for the littoral regiment, in the words of Marine Aircraft Group 24 commander Col. William Heiken, they can also be flown for other purposes.

The squadron’s Reapers can support “a wide range of operations such as coastal and border surveillance, weapons tracking, embargo enforcement, humanitarian/disaster assistance, support of peacekeeping and counter-narcotic operations,” Marine spokesman Maj. Jordan Fox said in a March statement.

Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3, abbreviated VMU-3, has flown a variety of uncrewed aircraft since its 2008 activation, according to the Wednesday news release. The squadron received its first two Reaper drones in April and flew its first Reaper in June.

The first Marine unit to operate the Reaper was the Yuma, Arizona-based Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1, which received its first of the aircraft in 2021.

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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