The Reaper UAV unmanned aerial vehicle (aka Predator B or Guardian) was developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., the latest in their series of UAV’s. As with the preceding tactical, unmanned combat air vehicles, the Reaper was designed specifically for use by the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy although it proved a valuable tool for use by the CIA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It was this UAV that came out top in the U.S. Air Force’s hunter-killer procurement program. As a result of winning this project, the Reaper is now being successfully deployed as part of U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan.
As a military weapon, the MQ-9 Reaper’s high-altitude surveillance capabilities are proving invaluable in tracking enemy manoeuvres and as a missile delivery system. Its 950-shaft horsepower, turboprop engine gives it a cruise speed of three times that of its predecessor, the MQ-1 Predator. In fact, coupled with its speed, its ability to carry 15 times more ordnance than the Predator has outstripped that UAV in all except loiter time.
Although unmanned and able to fly autonomously, the MQ-9 Reaper is always monitored or controlled by the same ground systems that have been used to control the MQ-1’s. At the Ground Control Station an aircrew is always charged with the responsibility of controlling the Reaper and of commanding any weapons employment. One major purpose in retaining the human element in UAV combat roles is to address the question of accountability should these unmanned vehicles be the cause of civilian deaths or injury.
Speaking of the MQ-9 Reaper a senior member of the U.S. Air Force suggested that the United States had moved from using UAV’s primarily in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance roles to true hunter-killer roles. As a possible consequence of this it has then also been suggested that no civilian should be charged with what is a purely military responsibility and that such responsibility be left entirely in the hands of military personnel.
Evidence of one such unit making this crucial transition can be seen in the actions of The New York Air National Guard 174th division, who are, since 2008, committing more men for training as pilots of unmanned aerial vehicles than for any other single weapons system. The MQ-9 Reaper can take much of the credit for the confidence being displayed in the reliability and effectiveness of unmanned aerial vehicles.
According to international laws of war such as those of The Geneva Convention, a burden is placed on combatants to ‘limit collateral damage through proper identification of targets and distinction between combatants and non-combatants’. The abilities of the MQ-9 Reaper in discerning these come closest to fulfilling any such obligations.
The superior surveillance capabilities of the MQ-9 Reaper have also made it extremely useful to the CIA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection service as a highly effective tool in monitoring non-military related criminal activities such as drug smuggling and illegal immigration. It seems that ‘big brother’ is indeed keeping a close and awesomely dissuasive watch on criminals with the state-of-the-art technological invention known as MQ-9 Reaper.