July 11, 2007 (by ) - The U.S. Air Force is sending its new MQ-9 Reaper UAVs to Afghanistan and Iraq. Not as reconnaissance aircraft, but as replacements for F-16 and F-15 fighter-bombers.
While the manned aircraft can carry five or six times as many bombs as a Reaper, this does not matter. The Reaper can carry up to four 500 pound JDAM
smart bombs. While over 300 JDAMs
were dropped per day during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in the last few years, the average number dropped per day is, at most, 3-4 bombs.
More JDAMs are dropped in Afghanistan, but even there, half a dozen a day, over the entire country, is a lot. Thus a half a dozen Reapers can easily replace half a dozen F-16s or F-15s. This saves a lot of money, as the two man crews for the Reaper (pilot and sensor operator) are back in the United States, and operate the UAVs via a satellite link.
The UAVs have a major advantage over manned fighter-bombers, in that they can stay over the target area longer, and do so with relief crews, so that there are always alert eyes using the powerful sensors (similar to the targeting pods on fighters) carried by the Reaper. The major disadvantage of the Reaper is its slow speed (about 500 kilometers an hour). Speed is a factor if you have a situation develop on the ground somewhere, and warplanes have to be rushed in. For that reason, some "fast movers" (jet fighters) will remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, ready to rush to an emergency at twice the speed of a UAV
Earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force formed the first UAV Wing. The 432nd Wing contains eight squadrons (six Predator, one Reaper and one maintenance). Each UAV squadron has at least twelve UAVs, and sometimes as many as 24. Squadrons have 400-500 personnel. Only about two thirds of those troops go overseas with the UAVs. The rest stay behind in the United States, and fly the Predators via a satellite link.
The 432nd has at least 60 MQ-1 Predators and six MQ-9 Reapers (also called Predator B) UAVs. When in a combat zone, each UAV averages about 110 hours in the air each month. Each aircraft flies 6-7 sorties a month, each one lasting 17-18 hours on average.
In three years, the air force expects to have fifteen UAV squadrons, and at least one more UAV Wing. During that period it is buying 170 MQ-1 Predators, and up to 70 MQ-9 Reapers (or Predator B). While the Predator was a reconnaissance aircraft that could carry weapons (two Hellfire missiles, each weighing a hundred pounds), the Reaper was designed as a combat aircraft that also does reconnaissance. The Reaper can carry over a ton of GPS
or laser guided 500 pound bombs, as well as the 250 pound SDB, or hundred pound Hellfire missiles.
The Predators cost about $4.5 million each, while the Reaper goes for about $8.5 million, for the basic aircraft, but nearly twice as much once you add high grade sensors. The Reaper can only stay in the air for up to 24 hours, versus 40 hours for the Predator. But experience has shown that few missions require even 24 hours endurance. For that reason, the air force decided not to give the Reaper an inflight refueling capability. The Reaper also carries sensors equal to those found in targeting pods like the Sniper XL or Litening, and flies at the same 20,000 foot altitude of most fighters using those pods. This makes the Reaper immune to most ground fire, and capable of seeing, and attacking, anything down there. All at one tenth of the price of a manned fighter aircraft.
The air force expects to stop buying the Predator until 2011, and then switch over to the Reaper, and new designs still in development.