Spain has ordered four MQ-9 Reaper UAVs, joining Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands as the latest export customer for the 4.7 ton, 11.6 meter (36 foot) long propeller driven aircraft with a 21.3 meter (66 foot wingspan) that looks like the older, and more famous, MQ-1 Predator. The much larger Reaper has six hard points, and can carry 682 kg (1,500 pounds) of weapons, more fuel or additional sensors. Weapons include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, or two 227 kg (500 pound) smart bombs (laser or GPS guided.) Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance is 15 hours. Spain, however, is buying unarmed versions of the MQ-9 and will use them for surveillance. The weapons will be replaced with more sensors or additional fuel. A growing number of nations are using MQ-9s mainly, or exclusively, for surveillance or electronic warfare.
The Reaper was designed to be a combat aircraft, one that could replace some functions of F-16s or A-10s or European fighter-bombers. In recognition of the increasingly international nature of MQ-9 users Britain, France, Italy and the U.S. founded the international MQ-9 RUG (Reaper Users Group) in 2015 to make it easier for present and future users of the MQ-9 to quickly share information on maintenance, tactics and operations in general. This would allow new ideas that work to quickly become known to all MQ-9 users.
While the Reaper manufacturer serves as a clearing house and common source for maintenance information (as is common with all aircraft) the different countries using the UAV develop local variations on the standards that are often an improvement on the standards. Eventually the manufacturer becomes aware of this and after some time lets other users know. The new user group spreads information like that immediately via a secure form of communication, like an encrypted version of the Internet the U.S. Department of Defense has been using for over a decade.
RUG got off to a running start because all the current users and the most likely future ones are NATO members. That means the RUG members already have arrangements for sharing classified information and technical data in general. The U.S. recently eased the export restrictions on where Reaper could be exported to so future Reaper users won’t automatically be invited to join. No problem there because many other complex American military systems that were widely exported have formal and/or informal users groups. With the Internet that was unavoidable. But with a formal users group you can freely exchange everything and when it comes to useful tip from those with combat experience, this can be a matter of life or death.
Training is still a particular problem for large UAVs. When it became obvious that non-U.S. UAVs that had served effectively in Afghanistan or for disaster relief work would have to be grounded when they returned home European nations became less strict about UAV flight prohibitions. Organizations like RUG helped with that by providing expert testimony about how the risk of aerial collisions has no basis in fact, and actual user experience.