Airframe: MQ-9 Reaper

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Timothy Dischinat
  • Airman Magazine


The most important asset to the United States Air Force is the life of an Airman. Remotely Piloted Aircraft remove the inherent danger that comes with piloting military aircraft and opens the evolving world of military aviation to nearly limitless possibilities.


The MQ-9 Reaper primarily serves as an intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft, but also functions against dynamic execution targets. As the successor to the MQ-1 Predator, the iterations of improvements allow the MQ-9 to gather reconnaissance and strike high-value, fleeting and time-sensitive targets. It also has the maneuverability to provide close air support, precision strikes, route clearance and terminal air guidance.

Much like the crew who maintains and operates it, the MQ-9 consists of a sophisticated network of systems working together to complete its mission. The aircraft sports a sensor/weapon-equipped aircraft, ground control station, Predator Primary Satellite Link and additional parts for ground crews to perform maintenance for deployed missions.

The MQ-9 is operated by a two-person crew, a rated pilot for controls and an enlisted aircrew member responsible for operating sensors and guiding weapons. While the 432nd Wing is located at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, the range on control and unmanned aspect of the aircraft allows for geographically separated units such as the 20th Attack Squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base, Nevada, the 89th Attack Squadron at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota and the 50th and 482nd Attack Squadrons at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina to operate and execute its mission from an entirely different location.

The MQ-9 is anticipated to serve the United States Air Force through 2035 with a heavy focus on continual upgrades for the current models. Its predecessor, the MQ-1, was retired from service in 2018.



The successes of the MQ-1 Predator were heavily considered during the development of the MQ-9 Reaper. Prototypes were designed and developed through technological advances between the first flight of the MQ-1 in July 1994 and the first flight of the “Predator B-001” proof-of-concept aircraft in February 2001. Additional prototypes worked to pinpoint a balance between speed capabilities, flight ceilings and maximum payload capacities.

The final design has six affixation locations allowing for the attachment of a combination of munitions and external fuel storage. Based on the current mission of the aircraft, the aircraft could maximize its fuel load with less mounted munitions for a longer endurance - or maximize its weapon load for a shorter airborne time.

The Multi-Spectral Targeting system allows for advanced targeting and intel gathering from a wide range of sensors onboard the aircraft to include a thermographic camera, infrared sensor and monochrome daylight TV camera. The aircraft can navigate a wide range of terrain and focus in on miniscule details from up to two miles away.  


Operational History

The MQ-1 Predator conducted its first missions in July 1995. Nearly 13 years later, the completed design of the MQ-9 Reaper entered service would become the United States Air Force’s first hunter-killer Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. “We’ve moved from using UAVs primarily in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance roles before Operation Iraqi Freedom to a true hunter-killer role with the Reaper,” said then Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. T. Michael Moseley.

May 2007 saw the reactivation of the 432d Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, with the new mission of operating the MQ-9 Reaper, along with its predecessor, the MQ-1 Predator. Thrusted into the global war on terrorism, the airframe would see its first confirmed kill on an insurgent within the first six months of activation. By March 2008, the number of attacks on targets in Afghanistan would increase to 16 through a combination of bombs and Hellfire missles.

The airframe, paired with the aging MQ-1 proved to be an important asset as the flight hours in the pair reached 2 million by 2013. It took over 16 years to achieve the first million - the second million came in just over two years - a 500% increase in flight hours.

Due to its smaller size, the aircraft can be partially disassembled and loaded into cargo aircraft such as the C-17 Globemaster to provide global support beyond the range of the MQ-9 alone.  


Did You Know?

  • The 174th Attack Wing, part of the New York Air National Guard became the first fighter unit to convert to unmanned combat aerial vehicles in 2008 when they shifted from F-16 fighters to MQ-9A Reapers.
  • In March 2001 the United States Air Force trained more pilots for unmanned aerial vehicles over any other single weapons system.
  • Along with the United States Air Force, MQ-9 Reapers are operated by NASA, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and six other NATO-allied countries.
  • “M” identifies the aircraft as multi-role, “Q” indicates a remotely piloted aircraft system and “9” identifies it as the ninth in the series of RPA systems.


Aircraft Stats

PRIMARY FUNCTION: Intelligence collection in support of strike, coordination, and reconnaissance missions
CONTRACTOR: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.
POWER PLANT: Honeywell TPE331-10GD turboprop engine
THRUST: 900 shaft horsepower maximum
WINGSPAN: 66 feet (20.1 meters)
LENGTH: 36 feet (11 meters)
HEIGHT: 12.5 feet (3.8 meters)
WEIGHT: 4,900 pounds (2,223 kilograms) empty
MAXIMUM TAKEOFF WEIGHT: 10,500 pounds (4,760 kilograms)|ER: 11,700 pounds (5,307 kilograms)
FUEL CAPACITY: 4,000 pounds (602 gallons) | ER: 6,000 pounds (903 gallons)
PAYLOAD: 3,750 pounds (1,701 kilograms)
RANGE: 1,150 miles (1,000 nautical miles)| ER:1,611 miles (1,400 nautical miles)
CEILING: Up to 50,000 feet (15,240 meters)
ARMAMENT: Combination of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II, GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II, and GBU-54 Laser Joint Direct Attack Munitions
CREW (REMOTE): Two (pilot and sensor operator)
UNIT COST: $56.5 million (includes four aircraft with sensors, ground control station and Predator Primary satellite link) (fiscal 2011 dollars)

An MQ- Reaper remotely piloted aircraft performs aerial maneuvers over Creech Air Force Base, Nev., June 25, 2015. The MQ-9 Reaper is an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft that is employed primarily as an intelligence-collection asset and secondarily against dynamic execution targets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Cory D. Payne)