MQ-9A ‘Reaper’ | The ‘predator’ in the sky

The U.S. drone that was forced down by Russian jets in the Black Sea is one of the most advanced remotely piloted aircraft that are operated by many countries, including India

March 19, 2023 01:23 am | Updated April 24, 2023 11:56 am IST

On March 14, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) ditched an MQ-9 Reaper in the Black Sea after a confrontation with two Russian Su-27 jets over international waters west of Crimea. The U.S. said a Russian fighter jet dumped fuel on the drone and in the second instance, flew very close and struck its propeller. It later released a 42-second video that captured the incident.

Featuring unmatched operational flexibility, the MQ-9A ‘Reaper’ has an endurance of over 27 hours, speeds of 240 KTAS (knots true airspeed) and can operate up to an altitude of 50,000 feet, according to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the manufacturer of the High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) .

“Several times before the collision, the Su-27s dumped fuel on, and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner,” Gen James B. Hecker, Commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said. “This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional.” In turn, Russia said the Su-27s were scrambled to identify the aircraft as its transponders were switched off while asserting that Russian fighters “did not use airborne weapons, did not come into contact with the unmanned aerial vehicle and returned safely to the home airfield.”

India’s links

The curious coincidence is that India has a connect with both the military platforms. While the Su-30MKI, the backbone of the Indian Air Force fighter strength, is a derivative of the Su-27, the Indian Navy is currently operating two MQ-9As on lease. A bigger proposal for procuring 30 armed MQ-9As, popularly called Predator-B, has been delayed.

The Reaper is a significant technological leap from the original RQ-1/MQ-1Predator that heralded the arrival of long endurance armed drones at the end of the twentieth century. Armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, it became a symbol of the U.S. war on terror, having being extensively deployed in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan in the early 2000s. The RQ-1 Predator, which was first flown by the USAF in 1995, was retired in 2018 and replaced by the Reaper.

According to the USAF, the Reaper is employed primarily as an intelligence-collection asset and secondarily against dynamic execution targets. “Given its significant loiter time, wide-range sensors, multi-mode communications suite, and precision weapons, it provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination, and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets.”

It is remotely operated by a two-person team — a pilot and an aircrew member to operate the sensors and weapons. MQ-9As are operated by the U.S., U.K., France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and on order by Belgium. Japan recently inducted the MQ-9B Sea Guardian, the maritime configuration.

Indian Navy leased the two MQ-9As in 2020, which has since been extended. In November 2022, General Atomics announced that the RPAs completed 10,000 flight hours during a period of two years, with the maiden flight taking place on November 21, 2020. “Our MQ-9As have helped the Indian Navy to cover over 14 million square miles of operating area,” Linden Blue, CEO of GA, had said.

On the deal for 30 armed MQ-9Bs, Navy Chief Admiral R. Hari Kumar said last December that the case was in progress and at a stage “where we are discussing if numbers need to be rationalised or kept as it is.”

At Aero India in Bengaluru last month, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and General Atomics announced that the turbo-propeller engines which power the MQ-9B will be supported by HAL’s engine division for the Indian market. The companies are looking to formulate a comprehensive engine Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) programme for upcoming HALE RPA projects, a joint statement had said.

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