The Development of the MQ-9 Reaper UAV

1920px MQ 9 Reaper taxis
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The MQ-9 Reaper UAV has been in development since the early 2000s as a successor to the original MQ-1 Predator. Originally designed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the Reaper is a multi-mission UAV that can be used for reconnaissance, surveillance, and strike operations. The Reaper was used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan and was credited with over 1,000 enemy kills.

MQ-9 Reaper

The Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (aka Predator B or Guardian) was developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., the latest in their series of UAVs. 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 was deployed as part of the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan. 

MQ-9 Reaper UAV
By U.S. Air Force – This image was released by the United States Air Force with the ID 070931-M-5827M-020

Operational Capabilities

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.

Coupled with its speed, its ability to carry 15 times more ordnance than the Predator has outstripped that UAV in all except loitering 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-1s.

Hellfire R9X Missiles

On August 2 2022, The Daily Telegraph and other news outlets reported that the Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had been killed by a drone strike in Afghanistan on July 30. The article mentioned the use of two Helfire R9X missiles in the strike in Kabul.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri killed by US drone strike in Afghanistan

Source: US Military


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. Airforce suggested that the United States had moved from using UAVs 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 is 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, 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. 

Limiting Collateral Damage

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.

Anti-Drug Smuggling Operations

The MQ-9 Reaper UAV is a powerful tool in the fight against drug smuggling. The drone is equipped with state-of-the-art sensors and camera systems that allow it to detect and track targets from long range. The Reaper has been used extensively in the war on drugs and has proven to be an invaluable asset in interdiction efforts.

In one notable instance, a Reaper was used to track a drug smuggling vessel off the coast of Colombia. The drone was able to maintain surveillance on the vessel for hours, allowing authorities to intercept it and seize over two tons of cocaine.

Illegal Immigration

In recent years, the Reaper has also been used to help counter illegal immigration. The Reaper is equipped with sophisticated sensors that can detect movement from long distances. This makes it ideal for keeping watch over remote border areas.

When suspicious activity is detected, the Reaper can be used to track the movements of people and vehicles. This information can then be passed on to law enforcement so that they can intercept people who are illegally crossing the border. The use of the MQ-9 Reaper has helped to reduce the number of illegal border crossings in areas where it has been deployed.

Royal Air Force

The Royal Air Force uses the MQ-9(A) Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for a variety of missions, including surveillance, intelligence gathering, and target acquisition. In recent years, the Reaper has been used extensively in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The UAV has proven to be an invaluable asset to the RAF, providing critical information and firepower in support of ground troops.

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