November 9, 2021:
Italy has finally begun a seven year, $69 million, project to arm its Reapers with fire-control systems and laser designators to operate guided missiles and smart bombs. Italy had problems with the American and Italian domestic politics in getting their six Reapers armed. Italy first requested this in 2011 and it took four years for the U.S. to agree. The main incentive to allow the export of armed Reapers was that China already had two firms selling armed Predator clones and soon had a larger Reaper size armed UAV as well. China would sell to anyone who could pay. Getting permission to arm their Reapers came at a time when Italy had another political party in power that opposed armed UAVs. That was the main reason Italy could not proceed with their armed Reaper program until 2021.
By 2016 there were five European countries (Spain, Britain, France, Italy, and the Netherlands) with Reaper UAVs in service or on order. Until recently only Britain had been able to obtain the armed MQ-9 version.
Reaper is a 4.7-ton, 11.6-meter (36-foot) long propeller driven aircraft with a 21.3 meter (66-foot) wingspan that looks like the older, and more famous, MQ-1 Predator. The much larger Reaper has six hard points, and can carry 682 kg (1,500 pounds) of weapons, more fuel, or additional sensors. Weapons include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM 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. European Reaper users preferred the unarmed version because Reaper was excellent for surveillance as it could carry more sensors and stay in the air longer than the Predator. A growing number of nations are using MQ-9s mainly, or exclusively, for surveillance or electronic warfare.
Despite that, Reaper was designed to be a combat aircraft, one that could replace some functions of F-16s or A-10s or European fighter-bombers. In recognition of the increasingly international nature of MQ-9 users Britain, France, Italy. and the U.S. founded the international MQ-9 RUG (Reaper Users Group) in 2015 to make it easier for present and future users of the MQ-9 to quickly share information on maintenance, tactics and operations in general. This would allow new ideas that work to quickly become known to all MQ-9 users.
While the Reaper manufacturer, as is common with all aircraft, serves as a clearing house and common source for maintenance information, the different countries using the UAV develop local variations that are often an improvement on the standards. Eventually the manufacturer becomes aware of this and after some time lets other users know. The new user group spreads such information immediately, via a secure form of communication, like an encrypted version of the Internet the U.S. Department of Defense has been using for over a decade.
RUG got off to a running start because all the current users and the most likely future ones are NATO members. That means the RUG members already have arrangements for sharing classified information and technical data in general, especially if they are NATO members or have defense-related treaties with the Americans.
Training is still a particular problem for large UAVs and that is often complicated by different rules for UAVs in different parts of the world. This became painfully obvious when non-U.S. UAVs that had served effectively in Afghanistan or for disaster relief work had to be grounded when they returned home, especially in the European Union, where use of all unmanned aircraft was illegal. European nations subsequently became less strict about UAV flight prohibitions. Organizations like RUG helped with that by providing expert testimony about how the risk of aerial collisions has no basis in fact, and actual user experience. To help with making UAVs legal worldwide, flight control equipment was modified to comply with all the regulations that were restricting UAV use.
In 2020 the U.S. Air Force stopped ordering MQ-9s and cancelled orders for at least 70 Reapers. The air force was shifting priorities to conflicts with better armed “near-peer” opponents like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Many European countries still want to use their Reapers, armed, or unarmed, for peacekeeping missions where near-peer opponents are absent. The American air force is still using over 200 Reapers a lot and the army has over a hundred MQ-1C Gray Eagles, a customized version of the Predator the army obtained so they would not have to depend on the air force for this type of aircraft.
The air force has not decided on what type of UAV should replace the Reaper and is still soliciting suggestions from interested suppliers of such aircraft.