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MQ-9 Reaper: What is it and why the Reaper matters

Updated 3-12-2023

MQ-9 Reaper Drone
MQ-9 Reaper Drone

The MQ-9 Reaper (also known as Predator B) is a military drone capable of remote piloting and is heavily armed. The MQ-9 is capable of surveillance but, in recent years, has been modified increasingly to be a “hunter-killer” drone, according to the US Air Force.

The MQ-9 Reaper is well-known and has been featured in US Air Force recruitment ads:

So why is it called the MQ-9 Reaper? What does it stand for?

“M” is the US DoD designation for “multi-role,” “Q” designates a remotely piloted aircraft, and finally, the “9” is because it is the 9th in the series. The MQ-9 Reaper is the largest drone in the series and is designed to carry multiple weapon systems, including Hellfire missiles, laser-guided bombs,  anti-air Sidewinder missiles, and other munitions.

Who makes the MQ-9 Reaper? What is the MQ-9 Reaper significant? Why is this drone important?

The MQ-9 Reaper is made by General Atomics based in San Diego. The MQ-9 Reaper is most significant as it is the original “hunter-killer” drone deployed by the US. The MQ-9 Reaper is deployed at 25,000 ft and can fly for 14 hours with a fully loaded munitions package. The MQ-9 Reaper has 7 hardpoints to mount weapons to, and it can carry up to 4 Hellfire missiles and two 500lb GBU-12 laser-guided bombs.

Besides being the first hunter-killer drone the MQ-9 Reaper is important for several reasons. The MQ9 provides excellent support in military operations because it can stay aloft for long periods of time and take detailed aerial images of potential threats or targets. The MQ-9 can conduct military operations without putting any pilots at risk; pilots can also be switched out because the drones are piloted remotely and control can simply be transferred. This is strategically important as a backstop against fatigue and a lack of pilots.

What is the MQ-9 Reaper? What does it do, and how does it compare to other advanced military drones?

The MQ-9 Reaper is the US Air Force’s primary hunter-killer drone, with over 300 in operation for the Air Force. The MQ-9 Reaper is designed for extended deployments, targeted bombing, and attack campaigns that don’t require any personnel on the ground.

It is significantly larger than many other drones, with wings that span up to 66 feet, and it can stay aloft for long periods of time – up to 24 hours. It boasts an impressive range of features including search and track, autopilot functionality, two-way data link and multi-spectral electro-optical imagery. Compared to other military drones, it has a much larger payload capacity at up to 3,750 lbs (1,700 kgs) as well as greater speed – it can travel 140 mph (225 kph).

The Reaper can be operated remotely from Air force bases like Creech Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada. It takes less than 2 seconds for an operator command issued to reach a Reaper, and the drone itself is equipped with sophisticated observation sensors which are fed back to the pilot. The MQ-9 Reaper was first used in Afghanistan and Iraq while operated from Las Vegas; it killed its first human being on March 6, 2008, in Afghanistan on General Gary North.

The MQ-9 Reaper or predator drone has become a mainstay of military operations around the world and is highly regarded for its capabilities in intelligence gathering, surveillance, and warfare.

What are the uses of the MQ-9 Reaper, and where has it been used?

The MQ-9 Reaper was first used in Afghanistan & Iraq; it made its first official “kill” in Afghanistan in 2008. MQ-9 Reaper is in use globally where military operations are ongoing; while not designed to fly alongside civilian aircraft, they are used by over a dozen countries for observation and military uses.

The Department of Defense put out this “MQ-9 Reaper at a glance” video that covers the drone’s operational capabilities and uses:

How much does MQ-9 Reaper cost?

Congress approved 17.875 million per MQ-9 drone in its most recent purchase, adding 16 new Reapers into service in 2021. MQ-9 Reapers can be outfitted with a massive range of weapons and other systems – so their estimated costs vary. Generally, MQ-9 drones operate in groups with a single trained USAF pilot and air force sensor specialist on the ground. In addition, these drones require air traffic control and support equipment on the ground. The total expense to operate the MQ-9 drones is higher than the individual drone price; besides all of the associated personnel costs – their munitions are often several hundred thousand dollars.

How many MQ-9 Reapers are in service?

There are currently over 300 MQ-9 Reapers in the US Air Force, and there are 13 countries that are known operators of the MQ-9 Reaper. Potential future operators include NATO countries that are allied with the US and need drones. However, governments, including Germany, have tended to avoid this technology. Still, with tension in Europe increasing, more hunter-killer-type drones are expected to be deployed worldwide.

How hard is it to operate the MQ-9 Reaper? What are the training requirements?

While it is comparatively easier than other top-of-the-line drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, it still requires months of training in order to become an effective operator. The MQ-9 uses robust ground control stations that provide expanded situational awareness capabilities and serve as the console for controlling the aircraft’s systems.

Training a pilot to fly an MQ-9 takes significantly less time than a modern fighter jet which can take upwards of a year. Piloting these UAVs requires strong multitasking skills as well as knowledge of electrical wiring, radio communication protocols, and general aeronautical operations. Additionally, successful operators must have outstanding visual acuity for safe navigation and precision during target acquisition.

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