The U.S. Air Force has begun deploying the heavily armed MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft in Iraq for the first time, more than a year after the long-range hunter-killer aircraft was introduced.
The deployment highlights the service’s increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, and other high technology as it adjusts to its new roles in counterinsurgency.
With a wingspan of 66 feet, the Reaper is larger than the MQ-1 Predator, and can carry a much larger weapons payload.
Designed to stay in the air for 30 hours, it has a range of more than 3,600 miles, nine times that of its smaller and older sibling, the Predator, according to the Air Force and its manufacturer, General Atomics Inc.
The Reaper was deployed last month in Iraq, the theater where the Air Force first flew armed UAVs in the fall of 2000, when Predators equipped with Hellfire missiles became part of Operation Southern Watch to enforce the U.N. “no fly zone” against Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The new weapon was shown to the public in July 2007.
Air Force officials say the Reaper has better surveillance instruments than the Predator, as well as a much heavier weapons package that can include 500-pound laser-guided smart bombs.
The Reapers are being flown from ground stations by two-member crews, including a fully qualified pilot. “For the way we fly them right now” - fully integrated into air operations and often flying missions alongside manned aircraft - “we want pilots to fly them,” Maj. Gen. William Rew told United Press International in a telephone interview.
Analysts say the demands on the time of Reapers and other aircraft are likely to continue to grow by leaps and bounds now that the Air Force can provide troops on the ground with live video.
Another system, known as the Rover, involves satellite links to special laptop computers.
“The demand for overhead imagery is insatiable,” said Noah Shachtman, editor of Wired magazine’s national security blog, Danger Room. “Who wouldn’t want that God’s-eye view?”
Mr. Shachtman said the Air Force, which says it has deployed 4,000 of the laptops with a special satellite uplink, is touting Rover as its “main technological innovation” for counterinsurgency warfare.
Critics have charged that the Air Force’s insistence on qualified pilots flying UAVs is a bottleneck to expanding their deployment. The Army, for instance, uses specially trained, but not pilot-level, qualified operators to fly some kinds of UAVs.
Officials say not all Air Force UAVs are flown by pilots, and that the service is looking hard at options to maximize the number it can deploy.
“Looking to the future, we will be challenged by resource issues. … The number of pilots available to fly the Reaper [and other UAVs] is not unlimited,” Gen. Rew said. “We’re being challenged to find the smartest way to do this in the future.”
“As the ground forces draw down, there will be more reliance on air power,” he said.
Critics say that an over-reliance on air power in Afghanistan has led to highly publicized incidents of civilians accidentally being killed, undermining the hearts-and-minds mission of counterinsurgency.
Gen. Rew said officials hope a greater reliance on air power won’t mean a greater use of it, thinking that an improving security situation will reduce the number of combat situations troops might have to call in air support.