I've been digging into some USAF MQ-9 Reapers for about a week now. Finally, today, I got the confirmation I needed to be fully confident in my analysis.
The first MQ-9s deployed to Romania in July of 2019. They were under the control of 52nd Expeditionary Operations Group Detachment 2 while the facilities at Mirosławiec, Poland, were under repair. Then, maintainers and aircrew from the 31st Expeditionary Operations Group Detachment 1 arrived and have remained.
The 731st Expeditionary Attack Squadron, which is the permanent unit operating MQ-9s in Romania, was activated at Romanian Air Force Base 71, Câmpia Turzii, RO, on March 4th, 2021.
Based on analysis of social media and news articles, we can determine that there are between 5 and 6 airframes stationed there.
USAF has stated that these MQ-9 flights are used to fly "freedom of maneuver missions to test new airspace access" and "integrate with joint and coalition forces in the region". Based on the flight plans available from ROMATSA, Romania’s Air Traffic Control organization, we can establish a synchronization matrix.
Based on this matrix, we can determine approximately how far they will travel. USAF has stated that these MQ-9s are providing 24/7 coverage; this means that there has to be at least one aircraft on station at all times. From examining flight patterns of US Customs & Border Protection MQ-9s, we know that it takes roughly 30 minutes for takeoff or landing.
With a takeoff time of 09:30 UTC for one flight, and a landing time of 14:30 UTC for the second, we can begin to do some math. First, this gives us a rough time in-flight of five hours. Second, with an understanding that takeoff and landing procedures take an hour total, we can subtract that to give us a transit time of, at absolute maximum, four hours. Taking the MQ-9’s transit speed of 180kts (333.36 km/h), we can then draw range circles to indicate how far the aircraft can travel.
However, knowing that the aircraft needs to reach her station and begin surveillance patterns before the other one can leave, it has to be less than four hours flight time. Surveillance aircraft (the MQ-9, RQ-4, et cetera) spend a vast majority of their flight time performing patterns over their target areas. We don’t know exactly what pattern these MQ-9s will be flying, all we know is that they will be doing it for a while. That eliminates the possibility of the aircraft flying four hours to reach her target. The most likely targets will be in the two and three hour circles: Ukraine, Belarus, or the Black Sea.
It is unknown how long this mission tempo will last. It is possible that the high cadence is due to increased Russian activity in Ukraine and the Black Sea.