The Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper flew its first operational mission over Iraq recently, the service said in a statement released from Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad.

The General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI)-built Reaper, also known as Predator B, became operational last year. It has flown approximately 480 sorties, totaling more than 3,800 flight hours, over Afghanistan since arriving there in September 2007, according to the Air Force.

The heavily armed Reaper has a maximum payload capacity of just over 1,700 kilograms and can carry various combinations of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II and GBU- 38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions. It has the ability to loiter for several hours at medium and high altitudes.

The massive drone is about the size of a fighter aircraft and is gradually taking over that manned mission, one Air Force official said.

“Many people [in the service] don’t like to admit it, but this is the wave of the future,” the official said.

Reapers are primarily flown via satellite from the United States. They are operated by the 42nd Attack Squadron and based at Creech AFB, Nev.

The aircraft’s focus is the persistent “hunter-killer” mission against emerging targets. Its alternate mission is as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance asset.

“The Reaper, as a close air support asset, expands beyond the concept of persistent stare to one of persistent strike,” Lt. Gen. Gary North, Combined Force Air Component Commander, said in a press statement. “If the ground commander wants us to strike an enemy target, we can do that with precision weapons from the Reaper at the exact point where the ground commander wants a desired effect.

The typical Reaper system consists of four air vehicles, a ground control station, communication equipment, spares and personnel. Its per-unit cost of $53.5 million covers the cost of four aircraft with sensors. The crew consists of one pilot and one sensor operator.

In July 2004, Air Combat Command approved the MQ-9 Enabling Concept Document. In February 2006, the Command ordered acceleration of Reaper to operational service.

The move was accompanied by the plan for procurement of seven additional aircraft, Col. Christopher Coombs, 703rd Aeronautical Systems Group commander, told sister publication Defense Daily in a July 18 telephone interview.

“It funded an acceleration of the Reaper, bringing the additional aircraft quantities into the program of record for Fiscal Years ’09, ’10 and ’11,” said Coombs. “Those additional quantities were one, three and three, respectively.”

The early deployment direction “not only resulted in an interim combat capability, but an acceleration of system development and demonstration, increment one capabilities,” Coombs added.

Lt. Col. David Miller, deputy commander for the 703rd, said the current Air Force fleet has just exceeded 20 aircraft.

“The numbers you’re looking at currently is a total of 21 aircraft” in the service’s active inventory, said Miller.

The White House requested $193.4 million for MQ-9 procurement and $13 million for system retrofits in its FY ’08 budget.

Maj. Bill Bower, deputy program manager, said the retrofit money would pay for improvements to the air frame and other features.

Coombs said the Air Force currently has one foreign customer, the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force.

“The United Kingdom has three MQ-9 aircraft in its fleet and intends to purchase a fourth,” he explained.

Industry officials have recently said that the Italian Air Force has also been in talks to purchase the system (Defense Daily, July 17).