Pilotless Robot Bomber Squadron Heads for Afghanistan, Iraq
BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq — The airplane is the size of a jet fighter, powered by a turboprop engine, able to fly at 300 mph and reach 50,000 feet. It’s outfitted with infrared, laser and radar targeting, and with a ton and a half of guided bombs and missiles.
The Reaper is loaded, but there’s no one on board. Its pilot, as it bombs targets in Iraq, will sit at a video console 7,000 miles away in Nevada.
The arrival of these outsized U.S. “hunter-killer” drones, in aviation history’s first robot attack squadron, will be a watershed moment even in an Iraq that has seen too many innovative ways to hunt and kill.
That moment, one the Air Force will likely low-key, is expected “soon,” says the regional U.S. air commander. How soon? “We’re still working that,” Lt. Gen. Gary North said in an interview.
The Reaper’s first combat deployment is expected in Afghanistan, and senior Air Force officers estimate it will land in Iraq sometime between this fall and next spring. They look forward to it.
“With more Reapers, I could send manned airplanes home,” North said.
The Associated Press has learned that the Air Force is building a 400,000-square-foot expansion of the concrete ramp area now used for Predator drones here at Balad, the biggest U.S. air base in Iraq, 50 miles north of Baghdad. That new staging area could be turned over to Reapers.
The estimated two dozen or more unmanned MQ-1 Predators now doing surveillance over Iraq, as the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, have become mainstays of the U.S. war effort, offering round-the-clock airborne “eyes” watching over road convoys, tracking nighttime insurgent movements via infrared sensors, and occasionally unleashing one of their two Hellfire missiles on a target.
From about 36,000 flying hours in 2005, the Predators are expected to log 66,000 hours this year over Iraq and Afghanistan.
The MQ-9 Reaper, when compared with the 1995-vintage Predator, represents a major evolution of the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV.
At five tons gross weight, the Reaper is four times heavier than the Predator. Its size — 36 feet long, with a 66-foot wingspan — is comparable to the profile of the Air Force’s workhorse A-10 attack plane. It can fly twice as fast and twice as high as the Predator. Most significantly, it carries many more weapons.
While the Predator is armed with two Hellfire missiles, the Reaper can carry 14 of the air-to-ground weapons — or four Hellfires and two 500-pound bombs.
“It’s not a recon squadron,” Col. Joe Guasella, operations chief for the Central Command’s air component, said of the Reapers. “It’s an attack squadron, with a lot more kinetic ability.”
“Kinetic” — Pentagon argot for destructive power — is what the Air Force had in mind when it christened its newest robot plane with a name associated with death.
“The name Reaper captures the lethal nature of this new weapon system,” Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force chief of staff, said in announcing the name last September.
Yes, I think that occurred to us. A March 14 Air Force press release informs us that the Reapers will be remotely controlled by the 42nd Attack Squadron at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.