General Atomics MQ-9 "Reaper"

13th September 2021

General Atomics MQ-9 "Reaper" user+1@localho Mon, 09/13/2021 - 21:17

The General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) MQ-9 Reaper is a Group 5 UAV originally designed for ISR-Strike missions. The type has since been employed in expanded mission sets such as maritime surveillance, ground moving target indication (GMTI), signals intelligence (SIGINT), anti-submarine warfare, etc. The Reaper is powered by a single Honeywell TPE-331-10 turboprop engine with either a three or four-bladed propeller depending upon the configuration. As of the time of this writing, more than 360 MQ-9s are in operational service worldwide. The USAF currently expects to replace the platform starting in the early 2030s.

Program History

The genesis of the Reaper program can be traced back to the Amber tactical UAV developed by Israeli immigrant Abraham Karem under Leading Systems Inc. The program sought an over the horizon targeting system for Navy anti-ship cruise missiles. Amber was ultimately terminated amidst the reorganization of several UAV programs in the late 1980s. Karem continued to develop Amber into the Gnat 750, and the design was eventually acquired by GA-ASI. The Gnat 750 and first flew in 1989 and by the early 1990s, the Department of Defense (DoD) outlined three capability tiers as the basis of its UAV future acquisition strategy. Two of the three tiers had Amber derivatives in mind.

The CIA funded the Gnat 750 and sponsored its deployment to Bosnia in 1994 following an international sale of the type to Turkey, which used the UAV to surveil Kurdish militants. The Gnat 750 was capable of carrying an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) payload to an altitude of 20,000 ft. for 40 hours. Tier II in the new DoD framework was expected to yield a derivative of the Gnat 750 with an expanded mission payload of 500 lb. for various sensors which could fly to at least 25,000 ft. GA-ASI developed the RQ-1 Predator for this requirement which won source selection in 1994. By 1997 the Air Force sought to acquire 52 RQ-1 Predators (13 systems of four UAVs each) at a cost of $118 million ($196.4 million in 2021 dollars). The service ran the acquisition program through its 645th Aeronautical Systems Group or Big Safari office, a unit dedicated to rapidly inducting specialized airframes to the Air Force inventory.

Predators were deployed in 1999 to support operations in Kosovo and proposals to arm the RQ-1 were being considered by 2000. The armed Predator (redesignated as the MQ-1 in 2002) was quickly pressed into service following 9/11 but as a result of its rapid introduction limited consideration was given to its reliability, maintainability and survivability. Realizing the limitations of the Predator, GA-ASI began an internal research and development (IRAD) effort to produce a more capable follow-on aircraft dubbed Predator B in 1998. The aircraft (B-001) first flew on Feb. 2, 2001, under an objective for 24 hrs. of endurance and the ability to sustain an operating altitude of 45,000 ft. The 900-shaft horsepower (SHP) turboprop TPE-331-10 represented a significant increase in power over the Predator s 115 SHP piston engine. GA-ASI also explored a Williams International FJ44-2A turbojet powered derivative (B-002) which would have had an endurance of 18 hrs. and ceiling of 60,000 ft. This concept later evolved into the Predator C which first flew in 2007.

GA-ASI s IRAD funding in this early period was further supplemented by NASA which was the first government customer to express interest in the Predator B in 2000. NASA contributed $10 million to develop the Altair earth sciences derivative which was supplemented by an additional $8 million of GA-ASI s own funding (combined $28 million in 2021 dollars). Gen. Jumper of Air Combat Command (ACC) immediately saw the platform s potential as a Predator replacement. The MQ-1 was inherently limited by its lower altitude and limited payload in many ways being better optimized suited for Army ISR requirements. By late 2001, the Air Force requested the development of the Predator B as a Quick Reaction Capability (QRC) using Defense Emergency Response Fund (DERF) allocations. The 2002 budget included $17 million ($25.4 million in 2021 dollars) for the first three MQ-9s which were followed by another six in 2003.

Because of the urgent operational need for persistent, high altitude ISR and strike with the advent of the Global War on Terror, the Air Force took a number of steps to accelerate the program. The first handful of aircraft were acquired without a competition to rapidly field a basic capability. A total of 19 MQ-9As were procured prior to the completion of its system design and demonstration (SDD) phase which began in Fiscal 2004. Additionally, Air Combat Commander Gen. Ronald E. Keys, issued a Predator B early fielding decision in 2006. The program was subsequently structured into two capability standards: Block 1 to provide an initial operational capability and the more advanced Block 5 to follow beginning in Fiscal 2013 (see variants section for additional details). In 2006, the Air Force officially designated the Predator B as the MQ-9 Reaper. The 42nd Attack Squadron became the first operational MQ-9A unit in 2007 and the MQ-9 s combat debut followed a month later in Afghanistan. The MQ-9 transitioned out of the Predator program to its own Major Defense Acquisition Program (MDAP) in 2008 (see production & delivery history for additional details).

Features

The MQ-9 Reaper is a Group 5 UAV with double the altitude capability, double the speed and ten times the payload of the preceding MQ-1 Predator. The MQ-9A Block 5 ER has a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 11,700 lb., wingspan of 66 ft., payload capacity of 850 lb. internally (3,750 lb. externally), endurance of 40 hr. and service ceiling of 50,000 ft. As the MQ-9 has evolved, each succeeding subvariant has expanded the type s endurance, mission packages, reliability and performance.

Airframe

The MQ-9 s airframe is optimized for high-altitude endurance with large high-aspect ratio wings and extensive use of composite materials to reduce weight. The baseline MQ-9 has an empty weight of 4,900 lbs. and fuel capacity of 4,000 lbs. The Reaper has approximately the same external dimensions as the A-10; the MQ-1, by contrast, is about the size of the Cessna 172. Following teething problems with the Predator, GA-ASI worked to improve the reliability of its successor airframe. Control actuators for the MQ-9A were designed with a mean time between failure threshold of 2,000 hr. compared to the MQ-1 s 150 hr. Additionally, the MQ-9A uses a triplex (double redundant) flight control system. The MQ-9 s flight control surfaces consist of a pair of rudders, four ailerons and four elevators.

Avionics

The configuration of the MQ-9s avionics suite varies with each configuration. Aircraft operated by international customers often differ from their U.S. counterparts. For example, the SkyGuardian configuration aircraft offered to Canada carry the export derivative of the Lynx radar or L3 MX-20 EO/IR instead of the Raytheon MTS. GA-ASI has also suggested a number of payloads under development (see upgrades section for additional details).