On June 23rd the latest version of the American MQ-9B Reaper UAV, the Block 5 model, flew its first combat mission. The MQ-9B has been in production since 2013 and the U.S. Air Force has ordered 66 of them since mid-2016 at a cost of about $12 million each. The British are now going to replace their ten older MQ-9s with at least twenty Block 5s. Although Block 5 is a tremendous improvement over Block 1 the air force is already planning to halt production of Block 5 by 2019 and begin replacing Block 5 with the new ER version, which has passed initial flight tests in 2016 and has already broken endurance records with flights of over 40 hours. The ER is so impressive that the air force is making plans to upgrade Block 5s to the ER standard by equipping older MQ-9s with the larger (by 20 percent) ER wings, a new engine, two additional two fuel tanks (one under each wing) and new fuel management software. There are also several other electronic upgrades. These include the ability to land automatically. The new engine is more reliable and generates much more power on takeoff enabling the MQ-9 to carry up to 1.3 tons of weapons, about twice what the Block 1 could carry. Fire control electronics and software have been upgraded to enable the MQ-9 to use GPS guided bombs including the Paveway series that can use either laser or GPS guidance. Weapons carried now 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).
The new engine and electrical systems generate a lot more electrical power and do so much more reliably, eliminating frequent problems with inadequate or interrupted electrical supplies. With the new electrical systems Predator can handle more powerful sensors and radios.
By 2020 the air force will have over 200 MQ-9s, most of the Block 5. Currently the air force has over a hundred MQ-9s in service.
The original MQ-9 Reaper looked like the earlier 1.2 ton MQ-1 Predator but was larger. The 4.7 ton MQ-9 is an 11.6 meters (36 foot) long aircraft with a 21.3 meters (66 foot) wingspan. It has six hard points and can carry 682 kg (1,500 pounds) of weapons. Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance was originally 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in many situations. Most of the nearly 150 Reapers built so far have been for the U.S. Air Force and since introduced in 2007 these Reapers have flown over two million hours.