The Drone Index: General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper
Like the US’ hard power, the Reaper’s wings soared over the dark corners of the world, sowing death and destruction wherever it cast a shadow. Its actions were impersonal and ruthless, sometimes reckless. Examining its origins offers a unique perspective on aviation history’s most ominous twist, when humans are killed by intelligent flying machines.
But there has never been any doubt that unmanned aircraft are useful in modern battlefields. At the height of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Iranian engineers modded their US-made target drones to fire rockets. Named the Mohajer and operated by crude remote control, it had limited success.
Meanwhile, in Southern Lebanon, Israel deployed a small remote control twin-boom plane to find targets for precision airstrikes. The drone used for these missions was aptly named Scout and its performance foreshadowed a trend that would transform the aerospace industry and the future of war.
Israel’s first UAV program began earlier than anyone else’s. Lacking reconnaissance aircraft, in 1974 a small group of engineers built the first Scouts. By 1977 the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) acquired these. The Scout reappeared during Operation Desert Storm and proved itself over the Balkans.
In 1995 the US Air Force used its brand new Predator drones to assist NATO airstrikes in Bosnia, a role that continued during the Kosovo air campaign four years later. It was during the final months of 2001 when a $3 million project to arm the Predator paid off with the first official drone strike conducted in Afghanistan.
For the next decade and a half, the USAF and the CIA monopolized the unaccountable use of armed drones, i.e. the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper. A batch of MQ-9 Reapers entered service with the USAF in 2007 and their numbers kept growing since then. Although the Reaper is a smashing success at assassinating terrorists, it’s also responsible for an estimated 5,500 deaths–most of them civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
The USAF currently maintains 104 Reapers and 164 armed Predators.
Constant tinkering and improvement has made the Reaper the best performing UAV in its class. It’s now able to carry eight AGM Hellfire missiles and even JDAM bombs, with a payload totaling 3,000 pounds. It can travel for 27 hours at altitudes reaching 50,000 feet, perhaps higher.
Powered by a 900 horsepower turbopropeller Honeywell engine, its speed and range is easily twice that of similar MALE UAVs and General Atomics is still finding ways to upgrade its trademark drone.
Impressive as it is, the Reaper has lost its edge. Not only are NATO countries (UK, Italy, France) clamoring to acquire it, but armed drones are within reach for militaries around the world. China, Iran, Israel, and Pakistan are known to either build or fly indigenous killer UAVs. There are few restrictions on the export of these aircraft.
Technology never stays in one place. Neither do weapons.