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Can the Military Save This Deadly Terrorist Hunter from the Scrap Heap?

www.popularmechanics.com
7 min read
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The MQ-9 Reaper was a linchpin in the Middle East. Now, it must adapt to new battlespaces.
Twenty thousand feet above Afghanistan, a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper prowls the skies, its tip-to-tip wingspan stretching 66 feet. It's early 2021, before the U.S. withdrawal, and the aircraft is on an armed Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) mission. It's also carrying a payload of up to eight AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, weapons so accurate that the CIA sometimes swaps their explosives with blades to target specific seats in moving cars.

The Reaper takes its cues from two people: a pilot at the aircraft's controls, and an enlisted sensor operator controlling the MTS-B targeting pod. Both personnel are more than 7,000 miles away, at Whiteman Air Force Base in Johnson County, Missouri. The aircraft has been aloft for more than 15 hours, but its pilot, Captain Dennis (surname redacted due to operational security concerns) is just beginning his shift at the controls. It takes 1.2 seconds for the captain's commands to reach the Reaper, and the aircraft returns high-definition video on a screen in front of his control panel. Just five minutes after the captain takes over the aircraft, he receives a "Troops in Contact" notification: Friendly troops are under fire by the enemy.

The alert comes with exact coordinates for the engagement. The MQ-9 can fly up to 27 hours without refueling, so Dennis turns the Reaper toward the threat and receives word from his sensor operator on the situation: Fifteen Taliban fighters armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades are approaching U.S.-partnered troops from the Afghan Armed Forces.

As the Reaper arrives on the scene, Dennis, a commissioned officer and instrument-rated pilot, begins direct communication with the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), the person on the ground who coordinates air support from within the fight. The JTAC relays the exact positions of both friendly forces and the approaching attackers. Their precision ensures that the powerful sensors tied to the MQ-9's onboard munitions have…
Alex Hollings
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