The world’s most feared drone
In the past several decades, the demand for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) has exploded. Compared to manned aircraft, UAVs are low cost, have a long endurance, can work independently from other assets, and are a great bang for the buck in achieving combatant commander’s intent—not to mention the plethora of other roles they can perform. The MQ-1 Predator was truly the pioneer of the in-theater Remote Piloted Aircraft (RPA) continuous presence. The demand resulted in the more capable MQ-9A Reaper being developed. Compared to the now-retired Predator, the MQ-9 is faster, larger, can carry a much greater payload, and has superior sensors. It is an all-around vast improvement over the MQ-1. The California Air National Guard (ANG) Grizzlies previously flew the MQ-1B and were the first ANG organization to transition from the MQ-1 to the MQ-9.
Eight years ago, the Grizzlies traded in their 12 Predators for more capable Reapers, with six MQ-9s now in their inventory. Three were transfers from other units and the remaining three were brand new. In July 2015, the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing (RW) was redesignated as the 163rd ATKW (Attack Wing) to reflect their current mission.
To clarify, the Reaper is also called the “Predator B” because it was the second generation of the MQ-1 Predator A. The Predator C, the “Avenger,” is a jet model with swept wings, but it has not yet been widely used. The Reaper, like the Predator, is a VFR-only aircraft (three-mile visibility required), so care must be exercised to avoid icing and foul weather.
While the Reaper has nearly the same endurance as the Predator A (we’ll just call it “Predator” from here on), over 20 hours or so, the MQ-9 flies much faster and farther, thus making it able to cover a significantly greater area during a mission. It can carry a much heavier payload, including a better variety of ordnance, has a more powerful 900 S.H.P. engine (Honeywell TPE33110YGD turboprop), and is equipped with an improved sensor suite. The sensor is the Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MTS-B and technically designated as AN/DAS1) that includes a robust suite of visual sensors for targeting. The MTS-B integrates an array of systems, including an infrared sensor, color/monochrome daylight TV camera, image-intensified TV camera, laser designator, and laser illuminator. The camera magnification and zoom range, plus image resolution, is superior to that of the Predator.
The Predator’s nose landing gear was a bit “spindly” in comparison to the much more robust titanium gear found on the MQ-9. The Predator nose gear was susceptible to a potential collapse after excessive bouncing or a hard landing at touchdown, and the expensive $4M sensor was located directly above on the chin. The sensor alone is worth more than the airframe, so the Reaper was designed with a stronger landing gear system in mind. There also is a newer MQ-9 derivative with an extended range in the works.
The MQ-9A can climb much faster than the MQ-1B and fly at higher operating altitudes. It also turns quicker and is more agile than its predecessor. There are differences between MQ-9As. The newer lot models have even more robust landing gear and superior brakes.
The MQ-9A is equipped with four underwing pylons for stores. It can carry either/ or a mix of GBU-12 Paveway II 500-pound laser guided bomb(s) and AGM-114 (P2, P4, and R2) Hellfire air-to-ground missiles up to 2,400-pound maximum stores weight. Future munitions will include the GPSguided GBU-38 500-pound JDAM bomb.
The AGM-176 Griffin air-to-ground missile has been tested and could be used as a possible laser-guided bomblet, as could the GBU-49 and GBU-54 500-pound GPS and laser-guided bombs. Carrying the AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile has also been explored. Some of these pie-in-the-sky weapons are budget-dependent, however, and the reality of using them in real-world scenarios has yet to be determined. During a recent test, a Reaper downed a smaller UAV using air-to-air weapons.
The Predator costs $4.9M, while a Reaper comes in at $13M, which is still relatively inexpensive for an aircraft of this caliber and capability. The easiest way to tell an MQ-1 from an MQ-9, aside from the MQ-9 being larger (which can be hard to discern at a distance), is by the tail section. The Reaper has its V-shaped tails pointing upward, whereas the Predator has them pointing downward. Well over 100 Reapers have been
WHILE THE REAPER HAS NEARLY THE SAME ENDURANCE AS THE PREDATOR ... IT CAN CARRY A MUCH HEAVIER PAYLOAD, INCLUDING A BETTER VARIETY OF ORDNANCE, HAS A MORE POWERFUL 900 S.H.P. ENGINE, AND IS EQUIPPED WITH AN IMPROVED SENSOR SUITE.
procured by the U.S. Air Force to date, and many more are now operated by various foreign operators.
Headquartered at March Air Reserve Base (ARB), California, the 163rd ATKW is broken down into various groups and squadrons that have different roles. Under the 163rd ATKW, the flying group is the 163rd ATKG, which is comprised of the 196th ATKS, the 160th ATKS, and the 163rd Operations Support Squadron. There are three other additional groups under the wing: Medical, Mission Support, and Maintenance. The Formal Training Unit (FTU) is designated as the 160th ATKS and trains new ANG Reaper pilots, sensor operators, and mission intelligence coordinators. The 196th ATKS is the tactical squadron that flies in-theater real-world missions and is known as the Mission
Control Element (MCE). The squadron flies missions in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan and basically anywhere around the globe. Crews typically fly four-hour
stints and are then replaced by other UAS operators. When flying missions, the aircraft first takes off and lands controlled by a pilot and sensor operator who flies it from the host base. For one mission, there may be up to five or six different crews that have completed several hours of flight time each for a portion of the total Reaper mission.
The FTU has a Ground Control Station (GCS) located at March ARB, and they previously had a detachment in the Southern California desert called the
Launch and Recovery Element (LRE). The LRE was technically a detachment of the 160th ATKS. The LRE eventually moved to March ARB, a product of consolidation.
The six aircraft owned by the 163rd ATKW are only used by the FTU for local training and never in an operational theater. The 196th ATKS only flies aircraft owned by other units in theater. The 163rd OSS is another squadron under the 163rd ATKG.
The OSS handles airfield management, standardization evaluations, and has advisory officers that report to the 163rd ATKG commander. Other squadrons under the 163rd ATKG include the 163rd MXG and MXS maintenance group/squadron and 163rd SFS security squadron that report to the 163rd Mission Support Group.
Current FAA guidelines dictate that within the United States, UASs must be accompanied by a chase aircraft between home base and both “to and from” the restricted airspaces they enter and leave for training. The chase observes the UAS for safety, watches for VFR traffic, and can make air-traffic control calls. Above 18,000 feet, a UAS can fly independently outside of restricted airspace via IFR flight. Chalk 2 provides a reliable and dependable chase service for the Grizzlies’ local flights, typically operating Cessna 210s and taking the MQ-9s to the R-2502 complex airspace.
If an MQ-9 has a “lost link” situation occur, meaning there is a signal hiccup or problem with data exchange or communicating with the aircraft, it will go into a preset altitude and orbit safely over a remote unpopulated area while crews initiate troubleshooting. There are redundant receiving systems, so rarely is an aircraft lost in this scenario. Should attempts fail to regain the link, the aircraft will remain in a “death orbit” until it runs out of fuel and crashes within the uninhabited region.
For landing, pilots use GPS coordinates and are backed up by what the sensor operator sees, such as en route landmarks and then the base. Once close and on final approach, pilots use a separate camera that is built into the nose of the Reaper for a visual line up on the runway. Reaper shipping containers, called “coffins,” hold the dissembled aircraft for compact and expedient worldwide shipping.
“In the FTU, we train both experienced and inexperienced pilots and sensor operators and teach them how to fly and operate the aircraft,” commented a senior pilot and LRE commander who was kind enough to share his experiences. He first flew Blackhawks with the Oklahoma Army National Guard, was an Air Traffic Controller, and later flew C-130Hs with the Air Force, netting some 1,500 hours in Hercs. Later he switched to flying the Predator and accumulated 2,000 Predator flight hours. He joined the Grizzlies in 2011 and transitioned to the Reaper. He now has over 1,000 hours in the MQ-9. He continued, “Instructors in the 160th ATKS may go to the 196th ATKS and help them fly the combat missions, and then come back and teach. On different days, we may be individually tasked for the needs of the Wing and Air Force.
“Basically, we use a crawl-walk-run system until students are proficient. Academics are first, then basic flight functions, followed by skill development near the end. We focus on the missions, such as shooting and reconnaissance, plus joint operations and working with friendly forces. Close air support is essentially graduation-level training, and they are combat-mission certified by their final unit in the end after receiving a bit more advanced training.
“The role of the Reaper pilot is to facilitate whatever the sensor operator needs, such as positioning the aircraft for the best view of the target, maintaining a good