BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq It looks more Star Wars than Iraq War, an unmanned aerial killer ready to fly its first combat mission in Iraq. But the MQ-9 Reaper is more than just a stunning sight it may represent the future of combat aviation.
The Reaper’s streamlined form stands out in its hangar in Balad Air Base in central Iraq, now the busiest in the world for the Department of Defense, with F-16s and cargo planes taking off and landing every few minutes.
The Reaper looks like its predecessor, the Predator drone, which was originally built as a reconnaissance plane and is already widely in use in Iraq and Afghanistan in support of troops on the ground.
But the Reaper was built with offense in mind. It can carry four Hellfire missiles (the Predator carries only two), and it is equipped with a pair of 500-pound laser-guided bombs.
The Reaper doesn’t have to refuel as often as typical fighter jets, so it can stay airborne longer and be involved in even more combat.
Thanks to its turboprop engine and advanced sensors, the Reaper can fly twice as fast and reach much higher altitudes than the Predator. And it doesn’t miss much on the ground even from miles above.