Last week, the 174th Air Force Fighter Wing flew its last manned combat sortie over Iraq in F-16s, which have now been mothballed in favour of MQ-9 Reapers. This makes it the first combat-specific wing to ditch conventional aircraft entirely in favour of unmanned robo-drones piloted from the ground. Welcome to the Skynet era, everyone!
There are a few Wings currently manned by Predator UAVs, which can indeed carry Hellfire missiles, but unlike the Reaper, their main mission is reconnaissance. Quite the contrary, the Reaper is the first true hunter-killer UAV, and its 20-metre wingspan and the ability to carry up to 1.5 tons of laser-guided bombs and other ordinance makes the Predator look like a fluttering sparrow.
And over Iraq, the Reaper can do the targeting-pod recon and close air support that manned jets most commonly find themselves tasked with at a fraction of the cost (Reapers cost US$18 million each, compared to three times that much for an F-16). Not to mention without the operational expenses or potential danger to the pilots, who can be in Las Vegas munching Taco Bell with their families. [Strategy Page via /.]