The Air Force has been using its new MQ-9A Reaper armed unmanned aircraft in missions over Afghanistan since late September, the service said recently.

The General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI)-built Reaper is the larger cousin to the MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft system (UAS) that has flown extensively in support of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unlike the Predator, which was conceived as a camera-carrying platform to gathering intelligence and conduct surveillance and reconnaissance–so-called ISR missions, the Reaper was designed from its inception to carry surface-attack weapons in addition to a sophisticated sensor suite so that it could strike time-sensitive targets accurately.

"It’s a tremendous increase in our capability that will allow us to keep [unmanned aircraft systems] over the airspace of Afghanistan and Iraq in the future for a very long time," Lt. Gen. Gary North, commander of U.S. Central Command Air Forces, said of the MQ-9 in the statement that the Air Force issued Oct. 11. "This is just another evolutionary step where technology is helping commanders on the battlefield to integrate great effects from the air into the ground commander’s scheme of maneuver."

The Reaper has completed 12 missions since its inaugural flight over Afghanistan on Sept. 25, averaging about one sortie per day, the Air Force said. Missions have included close air support and ISR; to date, the Reaper has not been called upon to drop weapons on enemy positions, the service said.

"The enemy knows we track them and they know that if and when they commit acts against their people and government, we will take action against them," North continued. "The Reaper is an incredible weapon in our quiver."

The Air Force said the operational use of the Reaper marks a tremendous step forward in UAS evolution. It noted that its quality assurance evaluators gave a "thumbs up" to the aircraft’s debut performance and have been pleased with its operation ever since.

While the Predator now carries two AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, it is still not considered the same type of potent hunter-killer platform as the Reaper, which can carry a larger weapons load, fly higher and much faster.

"The Reaper is a significant evolution in capability for the Air Force," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley, said in the Oct. 11 statement. "We’ve taken these aircraft from performing mainly as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms to carrying out true hunter-killer missions."

The MQ-9 carries Raytheon‘s [RTN] MTS-B Multi-Spectral Targeting System, a turreted suite of electro-optical and infrared cameras and a laser designator and laser rangefinder. It also has a synthetic radar aperture capability.

The Reaper is currently cleared to use Hellfires and GBU-12 500-pound laser-guided bombs in combat, Air Force officials have said. Current racks allow the MQ-9 to hold six weapons in total: either four Hellfires and two GBU-12s, or two Hellfires and four GBU-12s.

The Air Force had announced the forthcoming deployment of the Reaper to the Middle East/Near East region, but did not give the exact dates or specify that number of them going to the theater (Defense Daily, Sept. 18). All told, it currently has nine Reapers in its inventory.

The Reapers in Afghanistan are from the 42nd Attack Squadron at Creech AFB, Nev. It is the first of three Reaper units that the Air Force wants to establish by early next decade. At full strength, each squadron will have about 20 MQ-9s, Air Force officials have said.

Like Predators, the Reapers are launched, recovered and maintained at deployed locations in the theater, while being remotely operated by pilots and sensor operators at Creech, the Air Force said.