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The Reaper That Shoots Hellfire From Above

The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper is the US military’s premiere hunter-killer platform, sniping at targets from 15,240m in the sky. Except instead of bullets, it shoots Hellfire missiles. And with its most recent upgrades, the MQ-9 makes other drones look about as effective as Elmer Fudd.

The MQ-9 has been developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) and grew out of the highly-successful Predator drone program and first deployed in 2007 over Afghanistan. The Reaper can operate as an autonomous UAV or be commanded remotely by a pilot operating in at a ground control station. Although it is designed primarily as a hunter/killer deployed against high-value, time-sensitive, or mobile targets, the MQ-9 can also be used as an effective high-altitude, long-endurance surveillance platform. As such, it’s become a very popular choice among Federal agencies — the US Air Force, Navy, CIA, Customs and Border Patrol all own and operate Reapers, as do the British Royal Air Force and the Italian Air Force. In fact, beginning in 2008, the New York Air National Guard 174th Fighter Wing became the first fighter squadron to operate only UAVs when they transitioned from F-16 piloted fighters to the $US36.8 million remote-controlled MQ-9.

According to former USAF Chief of Staff General T Michael Moseley, “We’ve moved from using UAVs primarily in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance roles before Operation Iraqi Freedom, to a true hunter-killer role with the Reaper.” In addition, Reapers have also found roles in close air support, search and rescue, overwatch, and convoy protection — basically anything that involves targets being watched or blown up or both.

With a 15,240m operational ceiling the MQ-9 is considered a Medium Altitude Long Endurance UAV and represents a significant improvement over its Predator predecessor, which often required strategic compromises between its payload capacity, speed, altitude, and flight duration to complete missions successfully. The Reaper’s 950SHP Honeywell TP331-10 engine provides a 370km/h cruising speed and a range of 1852km while toting a 362kg internal payload and up to 1360kg of external ordnance. This can include up to 14 Hellfire missiles — compared to the Predator’s two — or various combinations of the GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb, the AIM-9 Sidewinder, or the GBU-38 JDAM. Using low-signature armarments like these allow the drone to attack without revealing its position overhead. The US Air Force is also currently testing the use of Stinger air-to-air missiles aboard the Reaper for those times when it needs to, you know, shoot down other planes.

Even when carrying the maximum number of weapons, the Reaper can stay aloft for over 14 hours. If it needs to loiter longer, a pair of 453kg external fuel tanks can be installed to push the Reaper’s air time to a staggering 42 hours.

But before the MQ-9 can use this impressive armory, it first needs to find its quarry. To that end, the Reaper employs wide-area radar like the Lynx II SAR in conjunction with the Raytheon AN/AAS-52 multi-spectral targeting sensor suite and an MTS-B 20-inch EO/IR gimbal implanted in the underside of the UAV’s nose. This allows the Reaper a wide field of vision that can scan, “spot”, and focus in on specific targets of interest.

An L-3 Communications Tactical Common Datalink transmits video and telemetry data back to the three-man team (rated pilot, enlisted sensor operator, and mission coordinator) including color/monochrome daylight TV, infrared, and image-intensified TV with a laser rangefinder/target designator.

The newest iteration of MQ-9, dubbed the MQ-9 Reaper Block 1-plus, made its aeronautical debut on May 24 at General Atomics’ grey Butte Flight Operations Facility in Palmdale, California. The 1-plus is more powerful, more secure, better armed, and stronger than earlier versions. Oh yeah, and it can land itself without a pilot’s input.

Its new high-capacity alternator (plus the addition of a backup generator) produces more current and grants the 1-plus a greater gross takeoff weight (5307kg up from 4762kg), a higher payload capacity, and the ability to carry more and bigger bombs. Its new dual ARC-210 VHF/UHF radios allow it to securely communicate with multiple parties both in the air and on the ground while boosting its data transfer pipeline. And stronger landing gear ensures that the Reaper won’t break under the strain of all those extra explosives when touching down.

“We continue to enhance the capabilities of our aircraft, improving their performance to meet emerging customer requirements,” said Frank Pace, president, Aircraft Systems Group, GA-ASI in a press statement. “The first flight of the MQ-9 Block 1-plus follows in the footsteps of the aircraft’s combat-proven Block 1 configuration and is an important technological achievement that will provide increased effectiveness, increased multi-mission flexibility, and even greater reliability.” In all, the Air Force is spending $US87 million to upgrade the 80 Reapers it’s received in the last two years. [Defense Update 1, 2, 3 - Wikipedia - Air Force]


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