Warplanes: When Bigger Is Better

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September 22, 2021: The U.S. Marine Corps is switching from the 61 kg (134 pound) RQ-21A Blackjack UAV to the 4.7 ton MQ-9 Reaper. This was unusual because it was only seven years ago that marines began receiving RQ-21As. Four years later, in 2018, the marines realized they needed a larger, more capable UAV and wanted to do it quickly. What caused this sudden pivot was tech improvements and a change in national strategy, away from counter-terrorism towards dealing with Chinese aggression and expansionism. By 2018 the marines had about a hundred RQ-21As, which had run into to some quality and reliability problems that that were not fully resolved until 2019. Meanwhile the RQ-9 had over a decade of reliable and effective service. Over 300 of these larger UAVs have been delivered so far, with the U.S. Air Force getting about half of those to replace the smaller RQ-1 Predators. The Reaper became a popular choice because of its long endurance, reliability and effectiveness at carrying out precision attacks on ground targets using laser guided missiles. The manufacturer also established a COCO (contractor owned, contractor operated) leasing program that could get Reapers to customers quickly. The marines obtained two of these COCO Reapers in 2020 to train marine ground crews and UAV operators as quickly as possible. By the end of 2020 marines were able to operate and maintain one of these UAVs overseas. The first marine owned Reaper arrived in 2021

The Reaper is a 11-meter (36 foot) long aircraft, with a 20-meter (66 foot) wingspan that looks like the MQ-1 but is much larger. Reaper was designed as a combat aircraft and has six hard points plus internal storage that enables it to carry 1.7 tons of weapons and sensors. The most common weapons used are up to eight Hellfire missiles, heat-seeking or radar homing air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, or two 227 kg (500) pound smart bombs (laser or GPS guided). Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance is 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in ground support missions. Reaper has done all that but has proved even most valuable as an armed reconnaissance/surveillance aircraft, doing things manned aircraft cannot do effectively or affordably. Reaper costs a tenth as much as a manned equivalent and offers similar savings with cost per flight hour. Another unique feature attractive to the marines was that Reaper used satellite communications for the operators, who can be at base back in the United States or on a ship at sea, especially an amphibious assault ship marines normally travel in.

While the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy began receiving RQ-21A UAVs in early 2014 the marines had to work out some kinks in using theirs and only declared the RQ-21A ready for regular (battlefield) service in January 2016. This came after a lot of field testing and tweaking. Some RQ-21As (five UAVs, two control systems plus launch and maintenance gear) were sent to Afghanistan in mid-2014 for field tests and were soon operating successfully in combat.

The RQ-21A is basically a larger and improved version of the earlier ScanEagle. RQ-21A has a 4.9-meter (16 foot) wingspan and can fly as high as 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) at a cruise speed of 100 kilometers an hour. RQ-21A can stay in the air up to 24 hours and can carry a payload of 23 kg (50 pounds). It uses the same takeoff and landing equipment as the Scan Eagle. RQ-21A also uses many of the ScanEagle sensors, in addition to new ones that were too heavy for ScanEagle. The additional weight of the RQ-21 makes it more stable in bad weather or windy conditions. Manufacturing and quality control problems disrupted RQ-21 operation while the marines were getting them, which made it easier to justify the switch to Reapers.

Like its predecessor ScanEagle, which entered service in 2005 and weighs 19 kg (40 pounds). Both could be operated from a ship. This involved using a catapult for launch and can be landed via a wing hook that catches a rope hanging from a 16-meter (fifty foot) pole. There is also a smaller CLRE (Compact Launch and Recovery System) for ship use. On land Scan Eagle and the RQ-21 can also land on any flat, solid surface. The marines planned to use their RQ-21As from ships but found it more effective to fly Reapers in and base them on any land areas nearby.

 


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