August 11, 2008: The U.S. Air Force is, for the first time, converting a fighter wing from manned (F-16) combat aircraft, to unmanned ones (the MQ-9 Reaper.) The conversion, for the 174th Fighter Wing, has been in the works for three years, and the last combat sorties in manned aircraft were flown last week, by members of the 174th serving in Iraq.
The air force has already converted several combat wings to fly Predators which, while armed (with two 107 pound Hellfire missiles), are considered reconnaissance aircraft. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, optimized for seeking out and destroying ground targets. Jet powered combat UAVs are in development. It's only a matter of time before UAVs take over air superiority, strategic bombing and suppression of enemy air defenses duties as well.
Strafing and "intimidation" (coming in low and fast) attacks have been very useful in Iraq and Afghanistan, so the Reaper is not going to put the F-16s out of business right away. But the 19 ton F-16 costs three times as much as a Reaper, and is much more expensive to operate. The F-16 uses over a hundred times more fuel, per hour in the air, and with the price of oil rapidly rising, that itself means a lot. Put simply, It's cheaper, more effective, and safer (for pilots) to use Reapers (or similar aircraft) for a lot of the ground support work. Fighters are still needed to keep the skies clear of enemy aircraft, although Reapers are better suited for the dangerous work of destroying enemy air defenses. But for fighting irregulars, the Reaper is king.
The MQ-9s cost has doubled in the last few years, to about $18 million per aircraft (with all the high end sensors). The 4.7 ton Reaper has a wingspan of 66 feet and a payload of 1.5 tons. Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, because it can carry everything from the hundred pound Hellfire missile, to the 500 pound laser or GPS guided smart bomb. Reaper has a laser designator, as well as day and night (infrared) cameras. Reaper can stay in the air for over 14 hours and operate at up to 50,000 feet. It's sensors have excellent resolution, and are effective at high altitudes. It's been noted that most of what F-16s (and F-18s) are doing these days is dropping smart bombs, and using their targeting pods to do recon for the ground troops. Reaper does both of these jobs better and cheaper.
The major advantage of the Reaper is it's "persistence." It can stay in the air for 14 hours (or more), and that means you can put it over an area of interest, and wait for the enemy to do something. If that happens, the Reaper is there with Hellfire missiles and smart bombs. The Reaper had two heavyweight (up to 1,500 pounds) inboard (close to the fuselage) hard points for bombs and missiles, and four more (two up to 600 pounds, and two up to 200 pounds) outboard (farther out on the wing). A max of 3,000 pounds of bombs and missiles can be carried on these hard points. Thus one Reaper can fly out with over a ton of munitions, and stay out for over ten hours. An F-16 can do that, but only if you want to wear down the pilot. The Reaper operators work in shifts, and are in much better shape to handle whatever comes up.
Reapers have only been in combat for a year, but for the troops on the ground, and many of those operating these UAVs, the future has arrived. While the pilots of the 174th Fighter Wing will miss flying jets, as National Guard reservists, they can now do their active duty without leaving their families, and go live in a trailer over in Iraq or Afghanistan. The maintenance troops will still go overseas, although some of the UAV maintenance is being done by civilian contractors.