Since the conception of flight and throughout the history of combat, pilots have always been required to be onboard an aircraft in order to manipulate their controls. Countless numbers of pilots have put their lives on the line over the last hundred years of air combat, but what if pilots could control their aircraft from a control center on the ground, behind friendly lines? Twenty years ago, no one would ever have guessed that remote-controlled aircraft, especially aircraft that can deliver a deadly payload, would be a realistic thought. However, today they are an everyday reality and a vital asset to the arsenal of the United States Air Force.
The next generation of combat aircraft was born with the creation of the MQ-1 Predator in 1995. The Predator, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is capable of spending more than 40 hours in the air during a single sortie. It carries enough fuel to fly 400 nautical miles to its target area, spend up to 14 hours probing for targets, then make the 400 mile flight back to its home base. The MQ-1 is equipped with a laser designating target system that enables it to pinpoint targets for its AGM-114 hellfire missiles.
After the MQ-1 Predator saw combat action, its flaws and lack of certain capabilities were corrected and retrofitted into the new-and-improved MQ-9 Reaper. Although its cost is double that of the MQ-1, at around $10 million, the Reaper’s performance is considered well worth the extra cost.
The MQ-9 is equipped with a 950-horsepower engine (compared to the MQ-1’s 115-hp). This huge increase in power makes the Reaper three times faster than the Predator. Additionally, the Reaper can carry up to 3,000 pounds of ordinance or extra fuel using its detachable external fuel tanks. The UAV can be fitted with laser-guided bombs, air-to-ground missiles, and even the short-range Sidewinder air-to-air missile.
The US Air Force has begun converting a number of select squadrons to UAV operations, and has deployed MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers to both Iraq and Afghanistan. The USAF has approximately 200 Predators and 30 Reapers currently in service.