Warplanes: Reaper Goes To War


October 17, 2007: The U.S. Air Force has sent its first MQ-9 Reaper (Predator-B) Hunter-Killer UAV into action in Afghanistan (VIDEO). One arrived in late September, and has been flying about one sortie a day. The Reaper officially entered service earlier this year, but the air force has not decided exactly how many to order. The nine now in service are being put to the test, to see if they can replace F-16s in some ground support functions (reconnaissance and dropping smart bombs and missiles.)

The MQ-9s cost has doubled in the last few years, to about $18 million per aircraft. The 4.7 ton Reaper has a wingspan of 66 feet and a payload of 1.7 tons. Only nine are in service, with another five being delivered in the next year. Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, because it can carry over a ton of bombs or missiles. This includes the hundred pound Hellfire missile, and 500 pound laser or GPS guided smart bombs.

Reaper has a laser designator, as well as day and night (infrared) cameras. Reaper can stay in the air for over 14 hours and operate at up to 50,000 feet. It's sensors have excellent resolution, and are effective at high altitudes. While most of what F-16s (and F-18s) are doing these days is dropping smart bombs, and using their targeting pods to do recon for the ground troops, there are still things the jets can do that Reaper cannot. For example, the jets are often used to intimidate hostile gunmen or civilians. Coming down low and fast, the jets make a lot of noise, and a menacing impression. The jets can also maintain air superiority, keeping hostile aircraft out of the area. Reaper, in theory, has some capability in that area. You could hang some Sidewinder (heat seeking) missiles on a Reaper, and be able to attack hostile helicopters. It's less likely that anyone would try to mount a machine-gun pod on a Reaper. Low level strafing attacks are too risky with a UAV being piloted by someone on the other side of the planet.

Those strafing and "intimidation" attacks have become very valuable, so Reaper is not going to put the F-16s out of business. But the 17 ton F-16 costs three times as much as a Reaper, and is more expensive to operate. The air force is expecting the Reaper to start replacing some F-16s. It's simply cheaper and safer (for pilots) to use Reapers (or similar aircraft) for a lot of the bombing. F-16s or A-10s are still available to the strafing or intimidation. The F-16 is actually superior to the A-10 when it comes to strafing, because a new generation of computer controlled gun sights enables an F-16 pilot to deliver 20mm cannon fire with unprecedented accuracy (as in through a specific window). But the A-10 is armored, and able to deal with ground fire more effectively.

A major advantage of the Reaper is it's "persistence." It can stay in the air for up to 14 hours (or more), and that means you can put it over an area of interest, and wait for the enemy to do something. If that happens, the Reaper is there with Hellfire missiles and smart bombs. The Reaper had two heavy weight (up to 1,500 pounds) inboard (close to the fuselage) hard points for bombs and missiles, and four more (two up to 600 pounds, and two up to 200 pounds) outboard (farther out on the wing). A max of 3,000 pounds of bombs and missiles can be carried on these hard points. Thus one Reaper can fly out with over a ton of munitions, and stay out for over ten hours. An F-16 can do that, but only if you want to wear down the pilot. The Reaper operators work in shifts, and are in much better shape to handle whatever comes up.

That, at least, is the theory. The single Reaper in Afghanistan is being put to the test. And more Reapers are on the way, to Iraq as well. Most air force generals are resigned to the fact that these pilotless warplanes will eventually get reliable, and useful, enough to replace a lot of the manned warplanes up there. What we're witnessing is the end of an era, the time when all warplanes had a pilot in them.


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