Southwest Asia–Both the United Kingdom and United States now are operating General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI)-built Reaper remotely piloted aircraft over the skies of Afghanistan, and, as of this month, U.S. Air Force assets have effectively employed the missile and bomb types that they currently carry against anti-government insurgents there, according to officials from the two nations.

The U.S. Air Force has operated a small group of Reapers, which it designates as MQ-9As, in Afghanistan since Sept. 25 (Defense Daily, Oct. 12). As of Nov. 8, its Reapers have flown 49 combat sorties, it said.

The first U.K. Reaper arrived there shortly thereafter, according to the U.K. Ministry of Defence (MoD).

As a sign of the Reapers’ potential significance to the U.S. Air Force, Lt. Gen. Gary North, the Air Force’s top general in the region, said last week, as more Air Force MQ-9s arrive, they will eventually supplant a U.S. squadron of manned attack aircraft. But he offered no timeline on when this will happen.

North, who commands U.S. Central Air Forces (CENTAF) and is responsible for directing the coalition air campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa, spoke to a small group of reporters at an air base located within U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility (AOR).

Sister publication Defense Daily was part of this group, which is visiting several forward operating locations in the theater.

The MQ-9 has got almost all of the tenets of a manned airplane currently deployed, with some advantages, said North. It can stay up longer on a sortie than a manned counterpart like the A-10 ground-attack aircraft or F-15E and F-16 fighter jets.

Further, it doesn’t cost as much gas to fly them, the general said. And I have got the persistent stare capability.

However, it does not carry a gun like its manned counterparts, he said.

The Reaper’s impact on the battlefield is frankly yet to be determined in a larger scale because the aircraft has only been in combat about six weeks, North said.

Yet this is already clear: "As an attack platform, it allows me to do several things, he said. "Number one, I can take and airplane out and fly it for up to 20 hours. I can range the battlespace at more than three times the speed of the Predator. I can carry six munitions on the airplane."

"The beauty of it is," he continued, "that when the weapons are gone, you can keep that airplane up for a long time and use it for that persistent stare."

The MQ-9’s sensor payload offers "an incredible increase in the tracking capability with both electro-optical and infrared, and improved laser," North said. "So in range and payload, it allows me to do a tremendous amount that I currently am doing with manned attack platforms."

The U.K. MoD said Nov. 8 the Royal Air Force (RAF) now has a Reaper force flying in Afghanistan. The first of three RAF MQ-9s arrived there in early October, it said.

"The introduction into service of Reaper is a major milestone for the RAF, which will significantly enhance the UK’s surveillance and reconnaissance capability in Afghanistan," Sir Glenn Torpy, chief of the RAF Air Staff, said in the MoD statement.

The MoD said it purchased the Reapers to meet an urgent operational requirement for all-weather, continual wide-area, overhead intelligence, surveillance, target-acquisition and reconnaissance capability. The delivery of the Reapers began only 15 months after the requirement was established, the MoD said.

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley said he was pleased that the United States was able to supply the U.K. Reapers within that timeframe because they’re vital to the coalition’s war effort in Afghanistan.

"They’re also yet another demonstration of the need for interoperability in our equipment," Moseley continued. "By partnering on the Reaper, our air forces can operate more seamlessly and field more aircraft faster and more economically."

The MoD said participation in the joint U.S.-U.K. Combined Predator Task Force over the past several years gave RAF personnel unique insight into U.S. Air Force operations of the MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft system, the Reaper’s little cousin, thereby allowing them to transition seamlessly to the Reaper.

The RAF Reapers are currently unarmed, but the MoD said it is investigating weapon options. As those deliberations unfold, the U.S. Air Force said it has already demonstrated the impact of using the MQ-9 to strike.

On Nov. 7, an Air Force MQ-9A Reaper dropped two GBU-12 500-pound laser-guided bombs in support of friendly ground forces who were taking fire from enemy combatants, CENTAF officials said last week during a visit to one base.

In a separate statement issued later, CENTAF said the Reaper was operating over Afghanistan’s Sangin region, when its pilot and sensor operator, who operate the aircraft remotely from Creech AFB, Nev., via satellite communications links, received a request for assistance from a joint terminal attack controller, the person on the ground who calls in air strikes.

The call for help came as friendly forces were taking fire from enemy combatants, CENTAF said. The strike destroyed the target and eliminated the enemy fighters, CENTAF said.

The mission marked the first time ever that bombs have been released by the Reaper in combat. The milestone came 11 days after another historic first, when an MQ-9 fired one of its AGM-114 Hellfire surface-attack missiles over Deh Rawod, Afghanistan, neutralizing enemy combatants, according to CENTAF.

The Reaper is the first unmanned aircraft system designed from inception as a strike platform. In contrast, the MQ-1 Predator, was designed primarily for ovehead surveillance and information gathering. Hellfire missiles were integrated onto the Predator at a later time, but it is still considered primarily an overhead information-gathering asset. GA- ASI also builds the Predator.

The MQ-9 can remain airborne for almost a day on a single sortie, depending on the load of weapons it is carrying. It currently can carry a maximum either of two GBU-12s and four Hellfires or four of the bombs and two of the missiles. Later, the platform, which also houses a sophisticated sensor suite, will carry a greater load of these munitions, and will be able to operate a wider range of weapons such as the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb.

The sensor payload comprises Raytheon‘s [RTN] MTS-B Multi-Spectral Targeting System, a turreted package of electro-optical and infrared cameras and a laser designator and laser rangefinder. The Reaper also has a synthetic radar aperture capability.

Unlike the Predator, Reapers are tasked in the CENTCOM combined air operations center through the process used for manned attack platforms and not via the method of tasking for unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, CENTAF’s North said.

"We fly these on our [air tasking orders] just like an F-16 or an A-10," he said.

Experience with operating the Reaper will help shape how the Air Force synchronizes manned and unmanned combat assets, North said.

Like Predators, the Reapers are launched, recovered and maintained at deployed locations in the theater, while pilots and sensor operators control them remotely from Creech.

GA-ASI refers to the Reaper as Predator B.