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What is the MQ-9 Reaper, the US drone in the Black Sea incident with Russia, and what is it used for?

The collision of a Russian fighter jet with an American MQ-9 Reaper aircraft over the Black Sea has again raised fears of an escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. Close encounters between Russian and Western planes are not uncommon, but Tuesday’s incident raised tensions as the Americans were forced to sink the plane into the sea.

Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been used in and around war zones for decades. Here’s what we know about the MQ-9 Reapers and their typical operating conditions.

What is the MQ-9 Reaper?

The MQ-9 Reaper is a large drone manufactured by military supplier General Atomics. It is operated remotely by a two-man team: a pilot and a crew member who is responsible for the sensors and guides the weapons.

Its length is 11 meters and its width is more than 22 meters. According to the US Air Force, it is primarily used as an “intelligence-gathering tool” and has a “unique ability to deliver” precision strikes on “high-value targets that require an immediate response.” Reapers can carry up to 16 Hellfire missiles, the same payload capacity as an Apache helicopter.

Like other drones, the Reaper can fly at an altitude of 15 kilometers and hover over targets for up to 24 hours, making them particularly useful for surveillance missions. Most importantly, it all happens with the crew still on American soil, out of harm’s way.

During 2018, the MQ-9 Reaper logged 325,000 flight hours for the US Air Force, 91% of which were in support of combat operations.

How common are drones?

Unmanned aerial vehicles have been in regular use since 1995, when the United States deployed the Predator (predecessor to the Reaper) to support NATO airstrikes in Serbia. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Predator gained a reputation for causing large numbers of civilian casualties during its so-called “precision strikes.”

The Predator was retired in 2017 when the Reaper became the primary drone for the US Air Force.

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles is now so widespread that in 2017 the US Air Force already had more jobs for drone pilots than any other category. At that time there were 1,000 jet pilots versus 889 C-17 transport pilots and 803 F-16 fighter pilots.

How are drones used?

Reapers deployed by the United States in the Black Sea region are used only for surveillance roles.

Last year, American media reported that the US Air Force is considering selling old Reaper drones to Ukraine. Negotiations have been frozen due to fears of transferring sensitive technology and the threat of some Reapers being downed.

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles outside war zones, a practice that intensified under former US President Barack Obama, has been surrounded by controversy. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), a non-profit organization specializing in investigative journalism, Obama’s two terms saw a total of 563 attacks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, mostly by drones, compared to 57 under George W. Bush term. BIJ estimates that between 384 and 807 civilians were killed.

In 2019, then-President Donald Trump rescinded an Obama-era regulation that required US intelligence agencies to publish the number of drone strikes outside war zones. The use of drones has accelerated even more during the presidency of the Republican mogul. According to the BIJ study, there were 2,243 drone strikes in the first two years of the Trump administration alone, compared to 1,878 in the eight years of Obama’s presidency.

Which countries use Reaper drones?

By far, the United States is the largest buyer of Reaper aircraft. According to the US Congressional Research Service, its Air Force has bought 366 Reapers since 2007, at an average cost of $28 million.

The UK has also used the Reaper and its predecessor, the Predator, to support its military operations over the years. Today, the British Royal Air Force has nine active Reapers and several more on commission.

Like the United States, the United Kingdom has increased its use of Reaper drones over the past decade. During the four years of war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria (2014 to 2018), the UK deployed its Reaper aircraft on more than 2,400 missions, almost every two days.

France, Italy, Spain, India, Japan and the Netherlands also operate Reaper drones.

Many other countries have deployed UAVs of various designs. Pakistan and Turkey have developed their own programs, and Turkey regularly uses drones against Kurdish groups in northern Iraq and in its own country.

China has started supplying its own drones to various countries. Customers include the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Nigeria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, although not all countries were able to post the purchased products.

Translated by Francisco de Zarate.

Source: El Diario





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