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.
You've heard of the Predator, which is a smaller and, until recently, unarmed drone used mostly for sustained reconnaissance. Well, the Reaper isn't a recon bird.
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.
As LTG Gary North said, "With more Reapers, I could send manned airplanes home". That, of course, has all the zoomies in a fitful flutter. Relax guys, someone is still going to have to fly cover. And then there are all those cargo planes ..., er, ahem. Back to the subject.
Cost? Not bad:
General Atomics of San Diego has built at least nine of the MQ-9s thus far, at a cost of $69 million per set of four aircraft, with ground equipment.
The Air Force's 432nd Wing, a UAV unit formally established on May 1, is to eventually fly 60 Reapers and 160 Predators. The numbers to be assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan will be classified.
How is it flown? Well you got a hint above, but here's some more detail:
The Reaper is expected to be flown as the Predator is — by a two-member team of pilot and sensor operator who work at computer control stations and video screens that display what the UAV "sees." Teams at Balad, housed in a hangar beside the runways, perform the takeoffs and landings, and similar teams at Nevada's Creech Air Force Base, linked to the aircraft via satellite, take over for the long hours of overflying the Iraqi landscape.
American ground troops, equipped with laptops that can download real-time video from UAVs overhead, "want more and more of it," said Maj. Chris Snodgrass, the Predator squadron commander here.
The Reaper's speed will help. "Our problem is speed," Snodgrass said of the 140-mph Predator. "If there are troops in contact, we may not get there fast enough. The Reaper will be faster and fly farther."
The new robot plane is expected to be able to stay aloft for 14 hours fully armed, watching an area and waiting for targets to emerge.
"It's going to bring us flexibility, range, speed and persistence," said regional commander North, "such that I will be able to work lots of areas for a long, long time."
Fully armed with a loiter time of 14 hours? Yikes ... that will make it very flexible and, able to wait most situations out. Interesting stuff.