Photographer: Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

America’s Predator Retires, but the Reaper Lies in Wait

The Pentagon grounds a controversial drone that introduced the world to remote-control death.

The U.S. Air Force is retiring one of its earliest combat drones, the MQ1-Predator, an aircraft that provided war fighters an unmatched battlefield surveillance tool. With armaments added, the vehicle pushed mechanized killing into the unmanned age, allowing remote pilots to dole out death from above.

The Air Force fielded its first Predator, the RQ-1, a reconnaissance model, in April 1996. It weaponized the aircraft six years later with the addition of two Hellfire missiles. President George W. Bush’s administration pressed it into heavy service in Afghanistan (and later Iraq) following the 2001 terror attacks, and its use accelerated under President Barack Obama. The increased reliance on drones as a surveillance device that also killed militants—and, by accident, hundreds of civilians labeled as collateral damage—attracted scrutiny, criticism, and questions of legality. 1  

The MQ-1 Predator

USAF

As with the constant technical advances of consumer items such as smartphones, drones have likewise evolved, increasing in size, speed, camera quality, durability—and deadliness. The Predator’s big brother, the MQ-9 Reaper, is an example of this progression, and will now be the primary weapon in the Pentagon’s unmanned aerial arsenal.

In military lingo, the Reaper, introduced for military use in 2007, is a “persistent multi-mission intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) strike aircraft.” That means it can loiter for extended periods—about 27 hours nonstop—to observe and transmit live images of a particular locale while also launching laser-guided missiles to obliterate targets. Built by San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., the Reaper can fly 230 miles per hour at altitudes as high as 50,000 feet and with a range of more than 1,100 miles. The Predator, which dates to the mid-1990s, can stay aloft only about 24 hours, has a cruising speed of just 84 mph, and a ceiling of 25,000 feet. Its range, a crucial variable for strategic use, is 770 miles.  

The MQ-9 Reaper

USAF

The Reaper is also used to provide close-air support for ground troops, once strictly the domain of combat jets such as the A-10 Thunderbolt. General Atomics sells the Predator and Reaper to U.S. allies.

Controversy has followed the drone, however, as its use for so-called targeted killings in the post-9/11 age of low-intensity warfare continues. Last year, the U.S. government said that between 64 and 116 civilians were killed in 473 U.S. air strikes outside Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria from 2008—when Obama was elected—through the end of 2015. The strikes killed as many as 2,581 combatants, the government said. The figures included casualties from strikes by drones and by manned aircraft.  

According to data compiled by the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank that has analyzed known U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, Obama oversaw 355 strikes in that nation, compared with 48 for Bush. As many as 160 civilians were killed in those strikes, which accounted for the deaths of more than 1,650 militant fighters.

The Trump administration ordered its first drone strike on March 2, with two militants believed killed. 

It’s technically incorrect to call either aircraft a drone. Both require pilots to control them, albeit remotely. Additionally, each Predator and Reaper mission has a staffer overseeing its weapons. Theses combat vehicles are part of the 20th Attack Squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., a facility that also houses the 509th Bomb Wing, the Air Force unit that flies one of the most expensive manned aircraft in service, the B-2 Spirit “Stealth Bomber.”

Retiring the Predator, the military explained, will be a cost-efficiency measure. Predator flights are scheduled to end by July 1, with the squadron fully transitioned to the Reaper by next year.

  1. The Central Intelligence Agency also flies weaponized Predators and Reapers. Several other U.S. agencies, including NASA, fly these aircraft unarmed.

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