The U.S. Air Force is moving rapidly to increase its force of UAVs
(Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). In three years, it expects to have fifteen Predator
squadrons. During that period it is buying 170 MQ-1 Predators, and up to 70
MQ-9 Reapers (or Predator B). While the Predator was a reconnaissance aircraft
that could carry weapons (two Hellfire missiles, each weighing a hundred
pounds), the Reaper was designed as a combat aircraft (it can carry two 500 pound
smart bombs) that also does reconnaissance. The Reaper can carry GPS or laser
guided bombs, as well as the 250 pound SDB, or Hellfire missiles. The Predators
cost about $4.5 million each, while the Reaper goes for about $8.5 million. The
Reaper can only stay in the air for up to 24 hours, versus 40 hours for the
Predator. But experience has shown that few missions require even 24 hours
endurance. For that reason, the air force decided not to give the Reaper an
inflight refueling capability. The Reaper also carries sensors equal to those
found in targeting pods like the Sniper XL or Litening, and flies at the same
20,000 foot altitude of most fighters using those pods. This makes the Reaper
immune to most ground fire, and capable of seeing, and attacking, anything down
there. All at one tenth of the price of a manned fighter aircraft. The air
force expects to stop buying the Predator in four years, and switch over to the
Reaper, and new designs still in development. Meanwhile, these UAVs use better
and better software, that enables one pilot to control three or more aircraft.
The sensor software alerts a human operator if anything of interest is spotted.
Thus, while there are still people on the ground controlling these UAVs, more
and more, the aircraft are operating by themselves.
U.S. Navy, as well as Britain and Australia are buying Predators, and several
other countries are considering. While there are many other UAVs of the same
weight class (similar to a single engine prop driven civilian aircraft), the
Predator has a combat record that no one else can match. This counts for a lot.