Reaper drone seen as useful in some close air support roles
Over two days of briefings here by everyone from pilots to maintainers to the commander of the 432nd Wing, one message rang out loud and clear: the Reaper has grown into a key Close Air Support (CAS) tool for the US military and should not be viewed primarily as an Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconnaissance (ISR) asset.The reapers could hit targets within 25 meters of friendly forces by using the more limited munitions. That is putting the close in close air support and troops in mortal combat sometimes need it that close. The Reaper appears to have some advantages in the urban setting that ISIS likes to fight in.
How well has the MQ-9 performed as a CAS weapon since first being widely used in that way in Sirte, Libya from last August to December? “In an urban CAS environment, we absolutely give the A-10 a run for its money for who is the better urban CAS platform. I realize that is a bold statement, but Colin, our men and women and their equipment are a formidable combination,” 432nd Wing Commander Col. Case Cunningham tells me in his fairly spartan office on this isolated base.
A-10 supporters, whose fervor can sometimes seem religious, need not worry that the MQ-9 is going to supplant the A-10 in other situations — yet. “In other CAS environments though, the MQ-9 isn’t where the A-10 is at. The A-10 has more weapons and the 30mm gun can do things we can’t do,” concedes Cunningham, a former F-16 pilot himself.
Another factor to take into account with so-called fast-mover aircraft like F-16s, F-18s, B-1s, B-2s and F-15s is that the enemy can hear them coming. The enemy often scatters when they hear the roar of an approaching fighter or bomber, which can be extremely useful. With an MQ-9, “they don’t know we’re there.” That can be useful if the goal of a mission is to kill particular personnel or to wipe out an enemy position — less so if the goal is to scare them off without striking, as was often the case in Afghanistan because of restrictive rules of engagement.
In Libya, more than 70 percent of the Reaper strikes were “danger-close” CAS missions, where exquisitely accurate targeting and the lowest amount of collateral damage possible were key. Hellfire missiles, originally designed to be used by attack helicopters, have smaller warheads than bombs and can be carefully guided during a strike to avoid destroying a building.