November 22, 2009: For the last few months, the United States has had at least one Reaper UAVs operating from the Seychelles islands, to search for Somali pirates operating far from their bases. One of these Reapers has been seen carrying a large pod under one wing. This appears to be a reconnaissance camera pod, that can take digital photos of large areas of water, over a hundred kilometers from the aircraft. Ideally, you want a maritime reconnaissance aircraft to carry a surface search radar, but this pod does not appear to be a radar. Moreover, a surface search radar would require much more electricity than a camera pod.
Since late last year, Somali pirates have been operating as far east as the Seychelles, which are a group of 115 islands 1,500 kilometers from the east African coast. The islands have a total population of 85,000 and no military power to speak of. They are defenseless against pirates. So are many of the ships moving north and south off the East Coast of Africa. While ships making the Gulf of Aden run know they must take measures to deal with pirate attacks (posting lookouts 24/7, training the crew to use fire hoses and other measures to repel boarders, hanging barbed wire on the railings and over the side to deter boarders), this is not so common for ships operating a thousand kilometers or more off the east coast of Africa. Ships in this area were warned late last year that they were at risk. Now, the pirates are out in force, demonstrating that the risk is real.
The 4.7 ton Reaper has a wingspan of 66 feet and a normal payload of 1.7 tons. It has a max speed of 400 kilometers an hour, but cruises at closer to 300. Also called the "Predator B", only about twenty are currently in service. Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, because it normally carries over a ton of bombs or missiles. This includes the hundred pound Hellfire missile, and 500 pound laser or GPS guided smart bombs. By carrying no weapons at all, which is how the ones in the Seychelles will operate, they can stay in the air for over 24 hours at a time. The U.S. Air Force is sending 75 airmen to the Seychelles to maintain the two or three Reapers that will be based there. The operators, based in the United States, control the Reapers via a satellite link. This will be the first time the Reaper has been used for maritime reconnaissance. The manufacturer has been pushing the Reaper (which is three times heavier than the Predator) as a maritime reconnaissance aircraft, and this will be realistic test. The reason for doing it now is because the monsoon (rainy) season is over. That means the weather is clear and the seas are calm in the region. This is perfect pirate weather, as they can spot large merchant ships, and go after them in their speed boats.
A fully equipped, for maritime patrol, Reaper costs over $20 million each. Such a reaper can spot ships below night and day, and has cameras that can zoom in on any ship or speedboat for a detailed video close up. A P-3 aircraft can only stay in the air for half as long as a Reaper, but carriers more sensors and weapons. A P-3 also requires a larger ground crew, and more maintenance after each flight.