The U.S. military is playing a larger role in the most recent conflict in Israel and Gaza than previously thought.
On Friday, the Pentagon confirmed reports that forces from the U.S. Special Operations Command are flying unarmed surveillance drones over the Gaza Strip to assist in the recovery of hostages held by Hamas, of which there are thought to be around 240, including several Americans.
According to Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been flying over Gaza since Hamas’ October 7 invasion of Israel.
“In support of hostage recovery efforts, the U.S. is conducting unarmed UAV flights over Gaza, as well as providing advice and assistance to support our Israeli partner as they work on their hostage recovery efforts,” said Ryder in a statement. “These UAV flights began after the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel.”
Amelia Smith, an open source intelligence and aviation researcher who has been tracking the MQ-9s for several days, told FLYING that by her estimate, a total of seven different aircraft are flying across the region, four of them per day. Typically, only one Reaper is in the air at any given moment. But the UAVs have loitered over Gaza at around 24,000 to 26,000 feet, sometimes for several hours at a time, Smith said.
The MQ-9 Reaper is considered the Air Force’s first “hunter-killer” UAV. It was initially designed as a highly precise and durable combat drone, with advanced sensors and cameras, robust communications, and the ability to loiter for more than 24 hours. Today, it is used primarily for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations.
Two unnamed Department of Defense (DOD) officials told the Times the Reaper deployments are thought to be the first time U.S. drones have flown missions over Gaza. The officials added that one goal of the flights is to pass potential leads on hostage positions along to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Previously, Pentagon officials had announced the U.S. delivery of precision-guided munitions, Air Force fighters, and air defense capabilities—such as interceptors for Israel’s Iron Dome counter-drone systems—to the IDF. But before Friday, they made no mention of MQ-9s.
In a Tuesday press briefing, however, Ryder mentioned that the DOD is “coordinating closely with the Israelis to help secure the release of the hostages held by Hamas, including American citizens.”
Added Ryder: “[Defense Secretary Lloyd] Austin highlighted that we immediately provided U.S. military advisors to offer best practices for integrating hostage recovery into Israel’s operations.”
Christopher Maier, an assistant secretary of defense, said earlier this week that U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are on the ground in Israel to assist with hostage recovery. Officials anonymously told the Times that several dozen commandos have been dispatched and are working with the FBI, the State Department, and other U.S. government hostage recovery specialists.
A senior Pentagon official told Spencer Ackerman, who runs the militarism-focused Substack blog “Forever Wars,” that SOF are preparing for “contingencies,” which may include the retrieval of hostages from Hamas. However, the official stressed that current deployments are non-combat missions aimed at training, consulting, and planning with the IDF, not recovering hostages.
Ackerman characterized direct special operations involvement in hostage retrieval as being in the “break-glass-in-case-of-absolute-emergency category.” For now, action is limited to surveillance with the MQ-9 Reaper drones and soft support for the IDF.
Meanwhile, Israel, which this week launched a ground offensive in Gaza City, reportedly plans to send drones into Gaza’s extensive tunnel network. According to recent reports and a firsthand account from an Israeli hostage who was released, these tunnels are where Hamas holds people after they’ve been captured.