By Courtney E. Howard
WASHINGTON—The MQ-9 Reaper, the U.S. Air Force’s new hunter-killer unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is flying missions in Afghanistan while being remotely operated by pilots and sensor operators at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.
The Reaper has conducted close-air support and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. The MQ-9 delivers real-time data to commanders and intelligence specialists using a sensor suite for targeting, gathers imagery with an infrared sensor, and is equipped with a laser rangefinder/designator to illuminate targets for laser-guided munitions, synthetic aperture radar for Joint Direct Attack Munitions targeting, and a color nose camera for flight control.
The Reaper also is capable of destroying or disabling enemy targets using on-board weapons. To date, the Reaper has not dropped weapons on enemy positions.
Operational use of the Reaper’s capabilities marks a step forward in the evolution of unmanned aerial systems, says an Air Force representative. “The Reaper is a significant evolution in capability,” says Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force chief of staff. “We’ve taken these aircraft from performing mainly as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms to carrying out true hunter-killer missions.”
“It’s a tremendous increase in our capability that will allow us to keep UAVs over the airspace of Afghanistan and Iraq for a very long time,” explains Lt. Gen. Gary North, commander of U.S. Central Command air forces. “This is another evolutionary step where technology is helping commanders on the battlefield. The Reaper is an incredible weapon in our quiver.”
The MQ-9 Reaper has nearly nine times the range, can fly twice as high, carries more munitions, and is larger than the MQ-1 Predator. The Air Force has nine Reaper UAVs in inventory.
The Reaper boasts a Honeywell TPE331-10GD turboprop engine; sports a 66-foot wingspan, 36-foot length, and 12.5-foot height; and weighs 4,900 pounds when empty. It can carry a 3,750-pound payload of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II, and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions. The Reaper can fly at speeds of roughly 230 miles per hour, with a range of 3682 miles and a ceiling of 50,000 feet. Initial operating capability is expected in fiscal 2008.