The MQ-9 Reaper (previously Predator B) is a medium-to-high altitude, long endurance remotely piloted aircraft system. The MQ-9's primary mission is as a persistent hunter-killer against emerging targets in support of joint force commander objectives. The MQ-9's secondary mission is to act as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance asset, employing sensors to provide real-time data to commanders and intelligence specialists at all levels.
The new MQ-9 Reaper flew daily missions over Afghanistan since late September 2008. The 658th Aeronautical Systems Squadron, in the 303rd Aeronautical Systems Wing, comprises the team of program managers, functional supporters, testers and logisticians who were behind the team effort of getting the MQ-9 armed and airborne in Afghanistan. The Aeronautical Systems Center is the primary acquisition agent responsible for developing, testing, producing, delivering and sustaining the MQ-9 Reaper from cradle to grave. Near the end of March, the 658th AESS was instrumental in the first MQ-9 being delivered at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., ahead of schedule to train combat aircrews. That delivery was the first of more than 50 aircraft that were expected to be delivered to ACC.
The turboprop-powered MQ-9, referred to as the Hunter-Killer, flies faster, higher and carries more weapons than the previous RQ/MQ-1 Predator series. The Honeywell TP331-10 engine, producing 950 shp, provides a maximum airspeed of 260 kts and a cruise speed for maximum endurance of 150-170 kts. The MQ-9A can carry a payload mix of 1,500 lbs on each of its two inboard weapons stations, 500-600 lbs on the two middle stations and 150-200 lb. on the outboard stations. The standard MQ-9, at a takeoff weight of 10,000 lbs, could carry 3,000 lbs of payload and 3,000 lbs of fuel. With no exterior stores, it could stay aloft for 32 hours at an altitude of more than 50,000 ft. A version with the wingspan extended to 86 ft, about the same as a 737 airliner, can carry 34 hours of internal fuel. With two 1,000 lbs drop tanks and 1,000 lbs of weapons it could fly a 42 hour mission. Payloads vary, but a favorite was the steadily upgrading Lynx synthetic aperture radar with a range of about 15 miles, even through clouds and rain.
The radar system on the Predator B also represented an upgrade over the earlier Predator series. Since the Predator B was expected to act as a strike vehicle, a better targeting radar was developed by General Atomics in conjunction with Sandia National Laboratories. The new radar system was known as the Lynx synthetic aperture radar. Not only does the new radar have 4-inch imagery resolution, it can also zoom. It allows the Predator B to accomplish its ground-imaging role even in poor conditions. Also, the targeting system was replaced with the 22-inch Raytheon MTS-B gimbal. This new system works at longer ranges than the previous 17-inch Multi-Spectral Targeting System camera gimbal.
Weapons planned the MQ-9A Predator B included the AGM-114 HELLFIRE II laser-guided air-to-surface missile to attack stationary ground targets. By the end of 2003 the Air Force intended to evaluate Raytheon's FIM-92 Stinger missile in the air-to-air role. By 2005 the Air Force planned to add the GBU-38/B 500 lb Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). The service then intended to integrate the 500 lb GBU-12/B laser-guided bomb with the air vehicle. Other direct-attack weapons such as Raytheon's AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missile remained options, while air-to-air weapons like Raytheon's AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile could also be evaluated.
The first Predator B prototype uninhabited air vehicle (UAV) was powered by a Honeywell TPE-331-10T turboprop engine, derated to 700 shaft horsepower, driving a rear-mounted three-blade controllable-pitch propeller. The Predator B was 36 feet long and had a wingspan of 64 feet, about 16 feet longer than the Predator. It was distinguished from its smaller cousin by its Y-shaped tail, with a ventral vertical fin. It was designed for a maximum gross takeoff weight of 6,400 lbs. The first turbine-powered aircraft built by GA-ASI, the Predator B was designed to fly as long as 25 hours at up to 200 knots indicated airspeed at altitudes as high as 45,000 feet, while carrying payloads of up to 750 lbs. The aircraft were designed to meet Federal Air Regulations Part 23 requirements.
The MQ-9 Reaper aircraft was designed to operate over-the-horizon at medium-to-high altitude for long endurance sorties. The aircraft was designed primarily to prosecute critical emerging Time Sensitive Targets (TSTs) as a radar-based attack asset with on-board hard-kill capability (hunter-killer) and also perform Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Target Acquisition (ISR TA) as a secondary role. In the hunter-killer role, the aircraft will employ fused multi-spectral sensors to automatically find, fix, and track ground targets (Automatic Target Cueing (ATC), Target Location Accuracy (TLA), Metric Sensor and other capabilities) and assess post-strike results. The MQ-9 was also to be explored for potential Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Sensors capabilities.
The MQ-9 Reaper was the Air Force's first purpose designed hunter-killer UAV. It is larger and more powerful than the existing MQ-1 Predator. The MQ-9 Reaper was designed to deliver significantly expanded capabilities, flying twice as high, twice as fast, and carrying four times the weapons. Available stores include the GBU-12, EGBU-12, and GBU-38 500 lb Joint Direct Attack Munition. The MQ-9 was designed to haul over 3,000 pounds of external ordnance to include the GBU-12, GBU-38, AIM-9 missiles and Small Diameter Bombs. The MQ-9 would provide a hunter-killer capability and would feature the ability to use synthetic aperture radar to hunt for targets. It would be able to cross-cue targeting data to the electro-optic/infrared sensor.
The Reaper was designed to go after time-sensitive targets with persistence and precision, and destroy or disable those targets with 500-pound bombs and HELLFIRE missiles. The Reaper represents a significant evolution in UAV technology and employment. The Air Force moved from using UAVs primarily in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance roles before Operation Iraqi Freedom, to a true hunter-killer role with the Reaper.
The key advantage was not so much keeping manned aircraft and pilots out of harm's way, but the persistence UAVs can inherently provide. The Reaper can stay airborne for up to 14 hours fully loaded. A 900-horsepower turbo-prop engine, compared to the 119-horsepower Predator engine, powers the aircraft. It has a 64-foot wingspan and carries more than 15 times the ordnance of the Predator, flying almost three times the Predator's cruise speed.
The typical system consists of several air vehicles, a ground control station, communication equipment/links, spares and personnel who can be a mix of active duty and contractor personnel. The crew for the MQ-9 is a pilot and a sensor operator, who operate the aircraft from a remotely located GCS. To meet combatant commanders' requirements, the MQ-9 delivers tailored capabilities using mission kits that may contain various weapons and sensor payload combinations. A refined basic MQ-9 Reaper setup consists of the aircraft, a control station, communications equipment, support equipment, simulator and training devices, Readiness Spares Packages (RSP), technical data/training, and personnel required to operate, maintain, and sustain the system. The system is designed to be modular and open-ended: mission-specific equipment is employed in a 'plug-and-play' mission kit concept allowing specific aircraft and control station configurations to be tailored to fit mission needs.
The Ground Control Station (GCS) functions as the aircraft cockpit and can control the aircraft either within line-of-sight (LOS) or beyond LOS (BLOS) via a combination of satellite relay and terrestrial communications. The GCS is either mobile to support forward operating locations or fixed at a facility to support Remote Split Operations (RSO). The GCS has the capability to perform mission planning, provide a means for manual and/or autonomous control, and a GCS configuration to allow control of multiple aircraft and payloads, allow personnel to launch, recover, and monitor aircraft, payloads, and system communications status, secure data links to receive payload sensor data and command links, monitor threats to the aircraft, display common operation picture, and provide support functions. Additionally, a Launch and Recovery GCS (LRGCS) allows for servicing, systems checks, maintaining, launching, and recovering aircraft under LOS control for hand-off to a mobile or fixed facility GCS. The GCS was expected to continue to evolve and upgrade its capabilities to keep pace with MQ-9 aircraft capabilities and the missions they perform.
The MQ-9 baseline system has a robust sensor suite for targeting. Imagery is provided by an infrared sensor, a color/monochrome daylight TV and an image-intensified TV. The video from each of the imaging sensors can be viewed as separate video streams or fused with the IR sensor video. The laser rangefinder/designator provides the capability to precisely designate targets for laser-guided munitions. Synthetic aperture radar will enable JDAM targeting. The aircraft is also equipped with a color nose camera, generally used by the pilot for flight control.
Capabilities in development included increasing the aircraft's gross take-off weight, enhancing aircraft systems to include integrated redundant avionics, ice detection capability, navigation system upgrades, electrical system upgrades, sensor/stores management computer, MIL-STD-1760 advanced weapons data bus, advanced sensor and weapons payloads, and improved human-machine interface, integrating standard "precision" weapons (GBU-12/38/49), hardware and software upgrades to the ground control station for MQ-9 operations, completing airworthiness certification; weapons system certification and accreditation, and producing applicable training devices that emulate aircraft capabilities. Subsequent investments will continue to evolve the MQ-9's capabilities to meet new requirements (which may include SIGINT, communications, and other sensor packages), and address reliability and maintainability and safety issues.
Each MQ-9 aircraft can be disassembled into main components and loaded into a container for air deployment worldwide in Air Force airlift assets such as the C-130. The MQ-9 air vehicle operates from standard US airfields. The MQ-9 is based at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.
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