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.
• Click here to see exclusive video from the Reaper's first combat operations in Iraq.
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.
"It's got infrared, so you can actually see somebody smoking a cigarette from about 25,000 feet," said Maj. Jon Chesser, a Reaper pilot attached to the 46th Expeditionary and Reconnaissance Attack Squadron.
But Chesser doesn't pilot the Reaper from inside. Instead, he operates the drone from a cockpit in a reinforced trailer on the ground at Joint Base Balad. The joystick he uses to control the plane looks remarkably like a computer game control.
The Reaper is slated to take over many support missions for ground troops next year that are currently being flown by F-16 fighter jets.
And while some of the Air Force’s most experienced pilots will be missing takeoffs and landings during missions, they aren’t getting replaced by machines yet. Some pilots say operating a Reaper is as intense as being up in the air.
"When I first came out and realized I was I going to fly Predators and Reapers, I was a little disappointed, but once I started flying and realizing the cutting-edge technology and the types of missions I was going to be flying, it's exciting," said Lt. Col. Micah Morgan, who commands the squadron.
"The adrenaline and everything is exactly the same as you would get in a Strike Eagle or F-16 — your blood pressure goes up, your heart rate increases," said Major Chesser. "You're there to support the guys on the ground, you're hoping you are helping them out. You have a sense of urgency just like you would in a fighter."
For now the Reaper is being used principally as a weapons platform to attack ground targets; it can't yet do everything an F-16 with a human pilot can do, such as engage in aerial combat.
But some of the pilots describe the introduction of the Reaper as the start of a dramatic change in aeronautics, one that will significantly alter the way wars are waged from the air.