About the MQ-9A Reaper
The MQ-9 Reaper is a remotely piloted medium-altitude, long endurance (MALE) aircraft designed for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR), and attack missions. The aircraft’s persistence and array of surveillance sensors are an essential complement to the RAF’s crewed platforms.
A crew comprising a pilot, sensor operator and mission intelligence co-ordinator flies Reaper from a remote ground control station (GCS). An in-theatre launch and recovery team is responsible for its ground operations. The operational crew controls the aircraft, its sensors and weapons system via an advanced, secure satellite communication system, providing over-the-horizon data link capability from bases in the UK and US.
Two cameras in the aircraft’s forward fuselage provide a forward view for the crew on landing and take-off, while a full sensor suite, with targeting, daylight TV and infrared capabilities is turret mounted beneath Reaper’s forward fuselage. An internal synthetic aperture radar completes the MQ-9’s sensor suite.
The US military has been using unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), also known as remotely piloted air systems (RPAS) or, popularly, drones, for intelligence gathering since the 1960s. In December 1984, a new avenue of development began when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency began a programme to develop a series of small, multi-role UAVs. The programme was known as Amber and Leading Systems Inc (LSI) created several Amber prototypes under its direction, flying the first in 1986.
Initially powered by engines of just 65hp, the Amber prototypes paved the way for LSI to begin development of the Gnat 750, suitable for sale on the export market. Still limited by the 65hp of its Rotax piston engine, the Gnat 750 looked remarkably like a half-scale Reaper. General Atomics purchased LSI before the Gnat entered production, completing the type’s first flight in 1989. The Gnat 750, and related I-Gnat and Gnat XP, saw limited service with US agencies until at least well into the 1990s.
By then, General Atomics had advanced with the design of the more powerful, more capable MQ-1 Predator, which it rolled out in August 1994, against a contract awarded only on January 7. Production of a 100hp version for the USAF and US Navy was ordered in August 1997, after a handful of pre-production aircraft had been deployed for service over Bosnia in 1996. The Predator’s exceptional surveillance capabilities were immediately evident, but no real effort to equip it with targeting systems or weapons occurred until 2000.
By summer 2001, successful trials with the AGM-114 Hellfire and an onboard targeting system were complete and the Predator had fired missiles in anger against targets in Afghanistan before year-end. While the MQ-1 was being weaponised, General Atomics was working on a new UAV designated Predator B. The title was, in fact, a misnomer, since the aircraft bore little in common with the MQ-1, apart from its general configuration.
Predator B featured a 900shp TPE331 turboprop and was designed for a heavy payload of sensors and weapons. The USAF committed to the Predator B programme under the designation MQ-9A Reaper. Work on the prototypes was well under way during 2001 and the type became available for operations in 2007.
The RAF’s association with Reaper has its origins in 1115 Flight, formed under the Combined Joint Predator Task Force in January 2004. This embedded UK personnel in US Predator operations, providing a core of expertise when Reaper training began in December 2006. Operations in Afghanistan began in 2007, 39 Sqn working out of Creech Air Force Base, Nevada with an initial six aircraft, although one of these was subsequently lost.
Five additional aircraft were contracted in 2012 and on October 26, XIII Sqn re-formed in preparation for operations from RAF Waddington. Reaper had been scheduled to go out of service in 2015, but has since been heavily committed to Operation Shader. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review confirmed that a replacement RPAS would be sought to include more than 20 aircraft for delivery from 2018.
In April 2016 the MoD announced selection of Protector, based on the Certifiable Predator B, to replace Reaper, while US State Department approval provides for as many as 26 airframes, as 16 confirmed and ten options. New GCS will also be acquired and UK weapons could be integrated.
Header image by Sgt Corinne Buxton
General Atomics MQ-9A Reaper:
- Powerplant: one 900shp Honeywell TPE331-10 turboprop
- Length: 36ft (10.97m)
- Height: 12ft (3.66m)
- Wingspan: 69ft 3½in (21.12m)
- Maximum take-off weight: 10,500lb (4,760kg)
- Maximum speed: 250kt (463km/h)
- Endurance (clean): 20 hours
- Endurance (with weapons): more than 12 hours
- Service ceiling (clean): more than 50,000ft
- Service ceiling (with weapons): more than 30,000ft
- Armament: two 500lb GBU-12 laser-guided bombs and four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles