Poland has become the latest customer for the MQ-9 Reaper, a UAV the U.S. Air Force believes is obsolete at the same time many other buyers are finding that it is just what they need for a variety of tasks. Poland was impressed by the success of the Turkish TB-2 in Ukraine and had witnessed the usefulness of the U.S. Air Force MQ-9s in Poland since 2019. Then there was the fact that many NATO nations had already been using the MQ-9, including Britain, France, Netherlands, Italy and Spain. Britain and France both sought to develop their own large UAVs and used MQ-9s as a stopgap until realizing that Reaper already did all they wanted their locally developed UAVs to do and had far more accessories available. Poland also realized the Reaper manufacturer, General Atomics, was responsive and resourceful in getting customers dealing with a local threat, what they wanted right away. That’s why the Poland acquisition of Reapers is a two-stage deal. First, General Atomics is leasing MQ-9A that are available now. These leased UAVs will soon be replaced with purchased and customized MQ-9Bs. The 5.6-ton MQ-9B Sky Guardian is the latest model of the Reaper, It has larger wings, designed to support sustained high-altitude operations of 40 hours at 50,000 feet/15,600 meters. The B version uses more composites to make it lighter and able to carry more fuel and heavier payloads, including high-resolution maritime radars. Poland wants to use its Reapers to patrol its Baltic Sea coast as well as land borders with Ukraine. 9B can also carry weapons, but that is a secondary function. There is an attack version of MQ-9B called the Protector, which can carry up to 18 guided bombs and missiles with a collective weight of up t0 4.2 tons There are so many sensor systems that 9B usually requires four personnel on the ground controlling UAV flight and monitoring the sensors. While UAVs don’t carry any crew with them, to keep a 9B in the air takes about twelve ground operators working in shifts to do that, as well as another half dozen ground crew (maintainers) for refueling and dealing with any troublesome components or changing the payload. Particular attention has to be paid to the flight control software and hardware that meets the strict Europeans standards for aircraft, manned or unmanned, operating in crowded airspace. Max unrefueled range is 10,000 kilometers. That means MQ-9B can cross the Atlantic without refueling and the most distant Pacific locations with one refueling stop.
The MQ-9B was developed because of the many items of equipment developed for the MQ-9A. While the American Air Force is seeking a Reaper replacement, many users have found the basic MQ-9A is just what they need. It was also noticed the Reaper had been involved in 81 percent of Central Commands (Middle East and Afghanistan) 61,000 airstrikes in 2015 and 2016. In all cases of Reaper involvement, the UAV provided the aerial surveillance that found and confirmed the target. Reapers often carried out the airstrike with laser guided missiles. This, plus the fact that Reaper could remain in the air longer than piloted aircraft and carry out more thorough and persistent surveillance, appealed to the U.S. Marine Corps. All this looked good on paper and worth investigating. In 2019 the marines bought two Reapers and used them to test all the capabilities marines needed. This involved over 15,00o hours in the air for those two MQ-9s, using payloads the marines believed suitable to their needs. In addition to the standard day/night surveillance gear, the marines tried accessories like Starlink satellite communications to augment the standard sat link. This involved adding Starlink backup to the standard sat link connection. Starlink has proved to be far more resistant to hostile jamming or the threat of satellite destruction. Starlink also provides a faster response time for the UAV and sensor operators based in the United States. The Starlink network is still expanding and will soon cover all of the Pacific and East Asia, where the marines expect to operate their reapers in support of many marine detachments, large and small over a wide area. What Reaper sees can be shared with navy and air force aircraft as well as navy ships that fire on targets the marine Reapers detect.
The marine Reaper also has an ESM (Electronics Support Measures) pod capability that provides information the day/night cameras can’t detect. The global data link Reaper uses can share threat and target information with air force, navy and army units, aircraft and ships worldwide.
Another recent development was autonomous take-off and landing software. This software has been available for over a decade but the latest version is even more capable and able to scan a designated airstrip, which might be a stretch of road, and determine if it is suitable. If so, the Reaper lands, using its sensors and ability to avoid anything that might suddenly appear on the landing area. The sense and avoid software is something else that was developed after the Reaper entered service in 2007, and has evolved to the point where UAVs can use it to land and take off from aircraft carriers at night. These new capabilities enable Reapers to self-deploy to new operating areas. Their ground support consists of a few dozen maintainers and equipment that can be carried in small transports or even the V-22 vertical take-off and landing transport that operates from ships and land bases. The maintainers and their equipment no longer have to be present at a new base. MQ-9A ER can fly over 8,000 kilometers at a time, moving at a cruising speed of 310 kilometers an hour. Landing one or more times to refuel, an MQ-9A ER can self-deploy anywhere and do so in a day or so, half the time it requires the old way which involved disassembling each Reaper for transport by air and then reassembling the Reaper at the destination. This allows rapid deployment of Reapers to where they are needed. It also means that an enemy seeking to attack the base Reaper is operating from will have a hard time finding it, especially since the “base” can be moved quickly and do so frequently.
Another new capability is communications gear that enables the Reaper to provide satellite communications for marines on the ground, no matter where they are, like mountain valleys that tend to block a lot of ground communications. This kind of equipment was used a lot in Afghanistan, where there are a lot of these radio-blocking valleys. The marine reapers will also use surveillance software capable of quickly spotting any surface vessels. This has made Reaper attractive to a lot of nations that just need good, low-cost maritime surveillance capability. Reaper does that because, at less than $4,000 per flight hour, it is five to fifteen times cheaper than manned aircraft. Reaper availability rates (90 percent) are the highest of any UAV in U.S. air force and naval aviation.
All these new developments were incorporated in the slightly larger and heavier MQ-9B. Even the U.S. Air Force was impressed by what the Reaper evolved into and still uses Reaper with plans to retire it in the 2030s as soon as an improved UAV can be found. That has proved to be difficult. The air force is no longer buying new Reapers existing and Reaper squadrons will be disbanded as combat and non-combat losses are incurred. The air force has not yet selected a Reaper replacement and is referring to it as MQ-X and mandated that it must be jet powered. The longer it takes to find a suitable replacement, the longer new versions of MQ-9 will remain in service. Sort of a UAV version of the B-52 or C-130.
The five-ton Reaper itself replaced the similar but smaller 1.1-ton MQ-1 Predator. While the last air force Predator was built in 2010 the U.S. Army kept purchasing an upgraded Predator known as the RQ-1C Gray Eagle. Both Predator and Reaper were developed and manufactured by General Atomics.
A decade ago, the air force planned to have over a thousand of these large, armed, Reaper UAVs. That did not happen because most American troops were gone from Iraq and Afghanistan by 2014 and there was less demand for these UAVs and less procurement cash to pay for them.