August 31, 2007 The US Airforce has announced the deployment of a new squadron of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) into combat zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. Capable of carrying a payload of 3,750 pounds, the jet-fighter sized MQ-9 Reaper can fly at 300mph, reach 50,000 feet and stay airborne for 14 hours at a time. The "hunter-killer" UAV also incorporates Infrared, laser and radar targeting and is capable of deploying precision guided weapons.
The MQ-9's primary mission is as a persistent mechanism against emerging targets in support of joint force commander objectives and its secondary mission is to act as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance asset, employing sensors to provide real-time data to commanders and intelligence specialists at all levels. The aircraft is an upgraded version of the MQ-1 Predator UAV that has seen much success in hostile combat zones like Iraq. Reports suggest that the Afghanistan deployment will take place this Autumn.
The MQ-9 Reaper, when compared with the 1995-vintage Predator, represents a major evolution of the UAV. It is four times heavier than the Predator, at a gross weight of five tons and is 36 feet long with a 66-foot wingspan. The plane can hold many more weapons than the Predator, having the ability to carry 14 Hellfire II anti-armour missiles - or four Hellfires and two 500-pound bombs. The MQ-9 Reaper can also deploy precision guided weapons such as the GBU-12 and 500lb GBU-38 JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition), and also employs sensors to provide real-time data to commanders and intelligence on the ground. It is clearly not merely a reconnaissance squadron about to enter into the front-line, but rather an attack squadron, with a lot more weaponry and kinetic ability at hand. All this, whilst cruising above the clouds at 260 knots for 14 hours at a time.
The Reaper is expected to be flown as the Predator is - by a two-member team of a pilot and sensor operator who work at computer control stations and video screens that display what the UAV “sees.” Other teams on the ground perform the takeoffs and landings, and similar teams at in US air bases, like Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base link to the aircraft via satellite, and take over for the long hours of over-flying the Iraqi or Afghan landscape. Similarly, American ground troops are equipped with laptops that can download real-time video from UAVs overhead, giving the armed forces much more flexibility, range, speed, persistence and of course, firepower.
General Atomics of San Diego has built at least nine of the MQ-9s thus far, at a cost of $69 million per set of four aircraft, with ground equipment. The Reaper squadron will start small with only four aircraft, but will ultimately have 20 planes in full operation. The US is also set to train operators and crews for the aircraft, with 10 Reaper operators already trained and an expected 19 operators to be trained in 2008. The British also are impressed with the Reaper, and are buying three for deployment in Afghanistan later this year.