Predator MQ-9 Reaper UAV: History of Development, Design, Performance, Armament, Pros, and Cons
Unit Cost: US$64m
Speed: 220 knots (410 km/h; 250 mph)
Endurance: 40 hours
Manufacturer: GA-ASI (General Atomics Aeronautical Systems)
MQ-9 Reaper: History, Design, Performance, Pros, and Cons
MilitaryEzyInfo.com | Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) capable of precision strikes against ground and air targets are considered one of the most effective means of warfare today. The United States is the most successful country in the development and mass production of these machines. The main attack drone currently in service with the U.S. military is the MQ-9 Reaper, produced by General Atomics.
This drone will be operational until at least 2030, after which it may be replaced by more advanced aircraft. However, the U.S. Air Force command has yet to indicate even an approximate date for a bid to evaluate the new strike drone project. So far, the MQ-9 has no obvious rivals, but it’s hardly an ideal vehicle.
History of Development
Attempts to mount different types of weapons on drones took place throughout the second half of the 20th century. In particular, in 1971, the world’s first air-to-ground guided missile was fired from a drone at an experimental site in the United States. This was the BGM-34 Firebee, a drone developed in the early fifties and originally used as a flying target. Prior to that, the aircraft had been armed with air-to-air missiles on an experimental basis.
There was no major development of success that could be achieved due to various circumstances. This situation changed after the massive terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001, which according to the U.S. Secret Service, were organized by Osama bin Laden. It should be noted that in late 2000, the U.S. UAV “MQ-1 Predator” flew over Afghanistan, where the headquarters of “Terrorist Number One” is located.
The original purpose of these machines was reconnaissance. Their concept was markedly different from older drones like the Firebee. The designers of General Atomics did not try to make the Predator fast and powerful. Instead, it was supposed to be light, silent, almost invisible, able to “hang” for hours in the air, and able to control everything that happens in a given location.
In 1998, the creators of the Predator UAV began on their own initiative to create a special enlarged version of the drone. The main objective was to increase the payload and speed of the drone. This required not only lengthening the wings and increasing the wing area but also installing a new, more powerful engine. For some reason, the project was partially funded by NASA (not the Department of Defense).
In the summer of 2000, a test flight of the AGM-114 Hellfire guided missile was conducted by a “normal” MQ-1 Predator. At the Nevada test site, an exact replica of the house in which bin Laden, who was considered one of the major enemies of the United States, lived, was built. Upon learning of the results, Cofer Black, director of the CIA Counterterrorism Center, became an ardent advocate of arming all Betrayers that were available at the time. In addition, he argued that the upgraded drones would be used directly against bin Laden as early as the winter of 2000-2001.
Despite Black’s best efforts, the necessary approvals were not granted and the Predators remained ordinary scouts until the terrorist attacks in New York City. the tragedy of September 11, 2001, changed this situation dramatically, as the Predator-B UAVs were no longer able to operate in the same way as the MQ-1s. Subsequently, the success achieved by the strike version of the MQ-1 was so significant that this also affected the fate of the Predator-B UAV.
Even before the end of 2001, the US Air Force signed a contract with General Atomics to deliver two prototypes of the “enlarged Predator”. The military was primarily attracted to the new drone’s heavy payload, which allowed it to expand its arsenal of onboard weapons, and after a practical test in 2002, the UAV was given a new name, MQ-9 Reaper, a sinister reference to the “personification of death,” a sinister-looking Grim Reaper in black robes and holding a scythe in its bony hands.
“Reaper” was not officially adopted by the U.S. military until 2007, but the drone had been used quite actively before then. In particular, it flew over the territory of Iraq, which was invaded by the US military in 2002. However, the number of such vehicles at that time remained very low, less than seven.
The first squadron to completely replace manned attack aircraft with MQ-9 Reaper UAVs was the 174th “attack wing” of the US Air Force, which had previously used F-16 fighter jets. The number of Reapers has been steadily increasing, reaching 195 in 2016.
Throughout its “biography,” the MQ-9 Reaper has been constantly improved. First, the OBE software has been updated, but more time-consuming tweaks and improvements have also been made. In particular, in 2016, the first test flight of the MQ-9/ER was conducted with an enlarged wing, again increasing the payload capacity and extending the autonomous flight time. There was also a great deal of interest in expanding the range of weapons carried by the drone.
MQ-9 UAV Design
The MQ-9 Reaper is an aircraft built with the usual aerodynamic scheme. The wings are straight (i.e. with zero sweeps) and long in length; the MQ-9 Reaper ER Long Wing modification is equipped with wingtips to improve some of the basic aerodynamic characteristics.
Visually, the “Reaper” differs from its predecessor, the UAV MQ-1 Predator, not only in size but also in the shape of its tail fin; the two keels are also used as stabilizers and were positioned downward in the “Predator”. The layout of the main vertical stabilizer with a directional rudder has been retained in the previous version.
The power plant uses a Honeywell TPE 331-10 turboprop engine, which has a capacity of 700 kilowatts (940 hp). The other engines were installed in earlier experimental modifications.
The chassis of the “Reaper” is three-post, with one front and two rear supports. The braking system was mounted on all three struts.
The development of the MQ-9 made extensive use of individual elements and units that had been used in other aircraft. This approach simplified the design and subsequent “fine-tuning” of the drone.
Reaper uses two separate systems for target search and navigation. One is the AN/APY-8 Lynx high-resolution multimode synthetic aperture radar. It is capable of mapping and detecting moving targets both on the ground and at sea level. Operators interacting with this radar are able to highlight and identify individual targets.
The second system is Raytheon’s AN/ASS-52(V). It is a daylight/infrared optronic sighting station equipped with a laser rangefinder. This device allows the use of all high-precision ammunition available to the US Army.
In addition, the MQ-9 Reaper can be equipped with the following:
- Gorgon Stare is a sensor system centered on nine video cameras, which provides a spherical view of the space around the UAV. It is designed for long-term surveillance of large areas; from a height of 7,600 meters, it can provide complete surveillance of everything that happens in a small city.
- Raytheon ALR-69A RWR Threat Warning System. Located in the internal compartment of the UAV for timely detection of drone exposure to enemy radar.
- Active jamming unit developed by Raytheon. This equipment was tested together with the ADM-160 MALD trap missile in 2013.
- EO/IR MTS-B sensors – These sensors are used to detect and track flying ballistic missiles and their warheads. UAVs equipped with such devices can interoperate with the ship’s Aegis ballistic missile defense system to provide targeting for SM-3 anti-missile missiles.
The MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) has seven suspension points. One of them is located in the center, just below the fuselage, the other six – under the wings, and three on each side. In the latest modification of the Reaper, the number of suspension points has been increased to nine.
The central hub under the fuselage is used to mount various targeting devices (e.g. jamming units). The remaining points are designed to accommodate a variety of weapons:
- AGM-114 Hellfire. This is essentially a “main caliber” MQ-9. The standard loading variant “Reaper” is armed with four such missiles mounted at the midpoint of the suspension. The maximum payload (in the latest modifications) is 12, and even 14 missiles; all variants of the AGM-114 are available.
- Brimstone A dual-mode small guided missile based on the British AGM-114. The drone can carry up to 18 of these munitions.
- Aircraft-correctable bombs up to 230kg. Attached to the inner suspension points only. All variants of JDAM bombs of appropriate weight can be used as well, e.g. GBU-12 Paveway II.
- AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-92 Stinger guided air-to-air missiles. Can be mounted on external hardpoints.
Comes standard with two guided missiles and four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. The on-board equipment can track up to 12 targets simultaneously by firing missiles in “pulsing” mode every 0.32 seconds.
The crew of the ground station MQ-9 Reaper consists of a pilot and a shipboard operator. They are also assisted by a coordinator in carrying out reconnaissance missions. Signals are transmitted via satellite, so Reaper flights over Syria can be controlled directly from the Pentagon or CIA headquarters.
The first version of the UAV in mass production was the MQ-9A. Subsequently, the following modifications were made to the drone:
- MQ-9 Block 1. First unveiled in the spring of 2012. This UAV differs by the presence of an enhanced chassis and an additional fuel tank. Flight time has been extended to 37 hours.
- MQ-9 Block 5. This is the result of further refinement of the Block 1 modifications. The drone was equipped with a more powerful engine, a second radio station was installed, and measures were taken to enhance the protection of the communication channel.
- The MQ-9 Reaper ER, which differs from the basic version in that it is equipped with an upwardly curved tip and a significantly increased wingspan. Continuous flight time increased to 43 hours.
- MQ-9 Mariner Designed for the US Navy, capable of taking off from aircraft carriers. The landing gear has been shortened to make it sturdier, hooks for the landing rope have been added, and the wings have been folded. It has a long flight time of up to 49 hours.
- MQ-9 Guardians This modification was developed for U.S. customs and border protection. They work in coastal security.
MQ-9 Reaper Specifications
Length of UAV: 11 m
Wingspan: 20 m
Height: 3.81 meters
UAV weight without fuel and weapons: 2,223 tons
Maximum takeoff weight: 4.76 tons
Fuel reserves: 1.8 tons
Payload: 1.7 tons
Maximum speed: 482km/h
Cruising speed: 313km/h
Flight Time: 14 hours under full load
Maximum flight range: 1,900 km
Operational ceiling: 15 420 m
Operational ceiling: 7,500 m
The MQ-9 Reaper can carry an additional 360 kg in its internal bays and 1,400 kg in its external suspension points. the dimensions of a UAV modified from the MQ-9A are shown.
The Reaper flew its first official combat sorties in the territories of Iraq and Afghanistan in the summer of 2007. A few months later, in late October, the MQ-9 attacked a Taliban-built fortress with Hellfire missiles – in fact, this episode was a “baptism of fire” for the new UAVs. since July 17, 2008, the Iraqi “Reapers” have been based at Balad Air Base.
In early fall 2009, several MQ-9 UAVs were sent to Seychelles. They were tasked with monitoring parts of the Indian Ocean and countering pirate attacks.
In September 2009, the Reapers were shot down on their first mission. It was destroyed by an American F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet with a Sidewinder missile. The reason was that he lost control during the flight – an uncontrolled drone was approaching the border and could later enter Tajikistan’s territory. After assessing the situation, the commander gave the order to shoot down the drone.
It should be noted that in the early years of their service, they were primarily engaged in observation and reconnaissance missions. They operated in Ethiopia, flew over Somalia, and in Libya where the US ambassador was killed in 2012.
In many cases, the reapers were used to kill specific people, many of whom were leaders of various armed groups opposed to the US and its allies. The victims of these drones included Mohammad Emwazi (aka “Jihadist John”) and Suleimani, the second-in-command of Iran’s mobilization force. The latter nearly sparked a major war in the Persian Gulf. Fortunately, Iran limited its demonstrative rocket attacks on U.S. military bases in Iraq, and U.S. leaders did not escalate the violence further.
Several Reapers were shot down by anti-aircraft missiles during combat missions. At least two such drones were destroyed by Syrian air defenses in the summer of 2020, and another drone fell victim to a Pantsir SAM while flying over Libya (this drone belonged to the Italian Air Force).
The MQ-9 Reaper has also been shot down twice by the Houthis, a rebel group fighting in Yemen against the Saudi-led coalition of nations. It is noteworthy that the origin of the missile used by the Houthis has not been established. Some reports say it was an Iranian air defense system, while others say it was a homemade modification of the Soviet R-27 air-to-air missile.
To assess the intensity of Reaper’s use, it can be noted that drones of this model belonging to the British Royal Air Force flew more than a thousand combat sorties over Syrian territory between September 2015 and January 2016 – not to mention far more American drones.
Pros and Cons of the MQ-9 Reaper UAV
The pros and cons of the Reaper are largely due to its increased size compared to the Predator. With a much larger payload, the drone is a more powerful weapon. Its large guided missiles can be used not only for single-point attacks like the MQ-1 Predator but also for troop support on the battlefield, successfully replacing attack helicopters and attack aircraft.
The Reaper is also compatible with a variety of additional equipment, opening up a wide range of possible applications in various fields. Already today, they are being used to control vast bodies of water, prevent smuggling, monitor order on the streets during public events, and detect forest fires.
On the other hand, the increasing size of UAVs has increased its visibility and vulnerability. This drawback is especially evident in Yemen, where two such UAVs were shot down by some homemade missiles.