Reaper flies 1st combat mission in Iraq

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Don Branum
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft system flew its first combat mission over Iraq July 18, offering a powerful new capability to warfighters on the front lines of the Global War on Terrorism.

"With the MQ-1 (Predator) and the MQ-9, you can hunt down a target; you can stare at a target; you can fix his location, and if you need to, you can destroy that target," said Lt. Col. Micah Morgan, commander of the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance and Attack Squadron here. "You're always overhead, always watching, always aware."

The 46th ERAS is the first unit in Iraq to fly Reapers. It's also the first squadron in the Air Force to fly combat missions with both the Reaper and the Predator, Colonel Morgan said.

The long-loiter capability allows unmanned aircraft systems' pilots to establish a high degree of situational awareness, Colonel Morgan said.

"When fighters are checking in, dropping weapons, checking out and going to get gas, we're still there," he said. "We're overhead and still supporting the ground commander."

The principal difference between the Reaper and its predecessor is a 3,750-pound weapon payload that can include GBU-12 laser-guided bombs, Hellfire missiles or a combination thereof. The variable weapon loadout allows Reapers to deliver small warheads that minimize collateral damage on the ground as well or larger munitions that can destroy hardened targets.

"The Predator was built as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance asset, and then they added the weapons on later," Colonel Morgan said. "The Reaper was built around being both a hunter and a killer. That's one of the things that makes it such an effective weapon -- its onboard camera and sensors make it a great hunter, and the 3,750 pounds of weapons makes it a great killer."

Operational experience with the Predator has already proven the intelligence value of "persistent stare," said Brig. Gen. Brian Bishop, commander of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing here.

"The Reaper, on the other hand, moves beyond that to solidly stake its claim in the realm of persistent strike," General Bishop said. "The Reaper provides a mix of capability that is uniquely suited to the situations we find ourselves facing in Iraq. Where traditional fighter aircraft can only loiter over an area for a few hours, the Reaper can stay overhead for extended periods and deliver a devastating blow at the precise time and place our servicemembers on the ground need it most."

Beyond the capabilities envisioned in the design and production of the Reaper and Predator, years of experience employing remotely piloted aircraft in combat over Afghanistan and Iraq have led Airmen to develop new tactics and techniques that make unmanned systems an indispensable part of the new joint fight, General Bishop said.

"Airmen across the globe operate as a synchronized team in the warfighting domains of air, space and cyberspace to save lives in ways we never thought possible before the advent of unmanned systems," he said.

Colonel Morgan provided an example. He was flying a sortie over a combat zone, and the A-10 Thunderbolt IIs supporting the Joint Terminal Attack Controller had to leave to refuel.

"They told the JTAC, 'We're bingo (fuel), we're out, we're going to get gas," Colonel Morgan said. "The JTAC's yelling, 'No, no, no, I need bombs on target.' The A-10s at the time couldn't call back to anyone else ... Well, I'm overhead, and because my cockpit is on the ground, I've got telephones, and I've got computers."

From his cockpit -- at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. -- Colonel Morgan picked up a phone and called the Combined Air and Space Operations Center in Southwest Asia. He told the controllers there that a JTAC in the field needed additional close-air support.

"The controller replies back, 'Copy, I'm ordering two A-10s to your location,'" Colonel Morgan said. Via his aircraft's uplink, he informed the JTAC that air support is on its way.

"It's a great capability when you can put a pilot in a cockpit that's on the ground, put the aircraft thousands of miles away, and then give the ability to see what he sees to practically everybody who has a Secure Internet Protocol Router Network computer and a connection," he said.

While pilots in the United States can fly Reapers after they're airborne, crews here must still see the aircraft safely into the air and back onto the ground. Each crew consists of a pilot, sensor operator and intelligence mission coordinator.

"We call those three our crew, but really, they're just the backbone of the system," Colonel Morgan said. "Behind the scenes, you have numerous agencies out there that are processing the video, studying the video ... plus you have a very large communication structure when you talk about using satellites and fiber optics. There are a lot of other people out there who make this work."

The local crew for the Reaper's first combat mission in Iraq included Maj. Jon Chesser as pilot, Senior Master Sgt. Ralph Goodwater as sensor operator and Senior Airman Elizabeth Cooper as intelligence mission coordinator. All three are deployed from the 42nd Attack Squadron at Creech AFB.

Airman Cooper has seen the Reaper grow from a promising weapons system to one that's delivered on its promises. She arrived at Creech in January 2007, and the first Reapers landed there in March.

"We got our first plane, started up our first flight training unit and got the students spun up and graduated," she said. "The first class then turned into instructors, and we started pushing classes and got our plane downrange to support Operation Enduring Freedom in October."

She said seeing the Reaper taxi out of a hangar in Iraq for the first time was exciting.
"I have to say, I got a little choked up when I watched the wheels take off last night -- I did," she said. "We worked extremely hard ... it was very rewarding to see it take off."