U.S. SOCOM’s (Special Operations Command) Air Force Special Operations Command has come up with a quicker way to get Special Forces troops high quality reconnaissance, no matter where these operators are in the world. This is done by partially breaking down two MQ-1 Predator UAVs and flying them where needed in a C-17. Maintenance equipment and troops go along with the two UAVs and get them reassembled and ready for operations in less than a day after they land. The MQ-1s are operated, via satellite link, by operators back in the United States.
The MQ-1 is a one ton aircraft that is 8.7 meters (27 feet) long with a wingspan of 15.8 meters (49 feet). It has 2 hard points, which usually carry 1 (47 kg/107 pound) Hellfire each. Max speed of the Predator is 215 kilometers an hour, while max cruising speed is 160 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 8,000 meters (25,000 feet). Typical sorties are 12-20 hours each.
SOCOM is working on being able to do this rapid deployment routine with the larger MQ-9 Reaper. This is a 4.7 ton, 11 meter (36 foot) long aircraft with a 20 meter (66 foot) wingspan that looks like the MQ-1. It has 6 hard points and can carry about a ton (2,400 pounds) of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to 8), 2 Sidewinder or 2 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, 2 Maverick missiles, or 2 227 kg (500) pound smart bombs (laser or GPS guided). Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance is 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in ground support missions.
Sending 1 or 2 MQ-9s would often be sufficient to provide the SOCOM troops with air support and would be done much quicker than sending F-16s or A-10s. The CIA operates its own fleet of MQ-1s and MQ-9s, and SOCOM can also gain control of some of these large UAVs for operations. Thus the air force is providing transportation that enables SOCOM or the CIA to quickly establish an aerial presence anywhere in the world within 48 hours. This is definitely a major boost if SOCOM is being asked to go to somewhere very remote and get something done. In the past, satellites or long range recon aircraft (like the U-2) were used, but these could not provide “persistence,” which is a UAV specialty and one reason why aircraft like Predator and Reaper have become so popular.