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 has 1½ tons of guided bombs and missiles.
The Reaper is loaded, but there’s no one on board. Its pilot, as the plane 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 — aviation history’s first robot attack squadron — will be a watershed moment even in an Iraq that has seen many innovative ways to hunt and kill.
That moment, one that will likely be low-key for the Air Force, 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.
“With more Reapers, I could send manned airplanes home,” Gen. 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 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.
It’s another sign that the Air Force is planning for an extended stay in Iraq and for supporting Iraqi government forces in any continuing conflict, even if U.S. ground troops are drawn down in the coming years.
The estimated two dozen or more unmanned MQ-1 Predators now doing surveillance over Iraq — the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron — have become mainstays of the U.S. war effort. They offer round-the-clock airborne “eyes” that watch over road convoys, track nighttime insurgent movements via infrared sensors and occasionally unleash one of their two Hellfire missiles on a target.
The MQ-9 Reaper, when compared with the 1995-vintage Predator, represents a major evolution of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
At 5 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 Guastella, 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.View Entire Story
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