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Meet the Reaper

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted April 24, 2007

Meet the Reaper. Fully loaded it can carry 3,000 pounds of weapons, including Hellfire missiles and GBU-12 laser-guided bombs. It's the destructive equivalent of an F-15, and it can stay aloft for more than 14 hours when armed to the teeth.

But unlike its more famous cousin, the Reaper has no pilot--at least in the traditional sense. It's "manned" by a joystick jock safely tucked away in an operations center far away from the actual battlefield.

It's an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), and it's the latest addition to an already quite deadly U.S. Air Force.

Larger, faster, and stronger than its brother the Predator, the MQ-9 Reaper's new home is Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Before long, though, it will be following in its brother's illustrious footsteps.

If there has been one trend that has emerged from the ongoing war on terror, it's been the dramatic use of drones to control the battlefield. Whether doing simple reconnaissance or raining down 500-pound bombs, these unmanned vehicles have proven themselves worthy in one skirmish after another.

In fact, drones have become so popular among the military brass that they now make up nearly 80% of all the flights taking place in Iraqi airspace. This year, Predator drones are expected to pass the 70,000 hour mark, which is more than triple their total during 2003.

Such heavy use, though, has taken its toll. To date the Air Force has lost about 40% of its Predator fleet. Of the 139 Predators delivered, only 86 remain, prompting an emergency request for 22 more.

That's in addition to the 144 more armed drones the Air Force is planning to buy as it boosts the number of UAV squadrons from 3 to 15.

"Chasing terrorists is a growth environment for the Predator," one analyst said.

But as good as the performance of UAVs has been in far-flung battlefields around the world, the emergence of drones like the Reaper and the Predator is just the beginning.

New and improved models could one day replace the Top Gun--at least partially.

That's what a test in England proved just last month, as one real pilot led a simulated attack by controlling the four drones that were part of the formation.

Working in combination, the formation of one Tornado jet and four drones simulated attacks on moving ground targets. Using a system developed by Qinetiq, the drones were able to act autonomously.

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Without real pilot help, the UAVs self-organized, found their "enemies," and targeted their weapons. It was only after the real pilot gave the go-ahead that the surrogates successfully fired them.

The tests were part of the Taranis Project (named after the Celtic god of thunder), a joint industry project funded by Britain to the tune of nearly $250 million. Its endgame lies in the future, when the project hopes to field squadrons of armed UAVs capable of delivering deep strikes.

It's a vision of future that has not been lost here at home.

In fact, the emergence of these scenarios has sparked another round of inter-service rivalries within the U.S military machine, as each service wants to control its own fleet of unmanned vehicles.

In this home-grown battle, the Air Force naturally has fired the first shot. The service said last week that it believes it can save $1.7 billion over the next six years if the Defense Department adopts its plan to become to the executive agent in procuring drones and operating them with a central control unit.

In short, the Air Force wants to control everything above 3,500 feet, which has drawn howls from the Army.

"Somebody tell me when a line in the sky became a core competency," said Army Brig. Gen. Stephen D. Mundt. "My helicopters fly above 3,500 ft. That doesn't mean that they belong to the Air Force."

At stake is not only the current balance of power within the military, but control of the purse strings themselves. Billions of dollars in funding are involved.

Later , we'll take a look at just where some of that funding is likely to end up.

Either way, the Reaper has definitely arrived and it is going to change everything.

Wishing you happiness, health and wealth,

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Steve Christ, Editor

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