That’s not a Reaper, this is a Reaper
Those of us in the defence industry often get in a huff when the mainstream media fail to accurately identify military kit. Of course, we know the difference between an armoured personnel carrier, an infantry fighting vehicle and a main battle tank – though it appears to be a monumental challenge for those that don’t cover defence every day.
At best, it can lead to some embarrassing headlines and, at worst, just plain inaccurate reporting. That’s been covered here on the pages of Quill before not only by myself (see ‘Toothbrush-size gun’) and also by the boss, Mr Viper (see ‘That’s a load of tank’).
But it’s a never-ending quest to educate, especially when some news outlets get it so blatantly wrong. Take, for example, a widely-published story last week that stated that Daesh (Islamic State) had developed an armed drone capability similar to that of the US Air Force’s infamous MQ-9 Reaper. The Daily Mirror reported:
The weapon appears to be based on the deadly MQ-9 ‘predator’ aircraft which is used by the American military and manufactured by California-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.
Before I’ve read the story, or even seen any photos – I know this isn’t even remotely possible.
First off, when fully-loaded with its high-tech weapons and secretive sensors, a Reaper weighs around 5 tons, which means it needs a runway at a dedicated air base to take off and land from. Despite being ‘unmanned’ it also requires a significant manpower contribution to fly, maintain, load with weapons, fill with fuel, operate sensors, analyse intel data etc.
In other words, only really a first-tier air force – like the USAF or RAF – can operate an advanced armed platform like the MQ-9. Daesh is not a first-tier air force. In fact, it has no air force at all.
Indeed, once you look at the photos/video of the ‘ISIS Reaper’ it becomes clear that it certainly is no Reaper.
In fact, it’s a hand-launched flying-wing UAV (probably weighing around 10-15kg), equipped with what look like rudimentary bombs on either wing. Now I’m not saying that it cannot be a deadly weapon, but its simplicity means that its battlefield utility is likely minimal.
There are already examples of Daesh utilising commercial drones, mainly quadcopters, as delivery vehicles for improvised explosive devices. There have even been some small-scale successes where groups of soldiers have been caught off-guard by a hovering quadcopter dropping a grenade from above.
The guidance system for the quadcopters has simply been gravity. But guiding ‘dumb’ bombs becomes much more difficult when you use fast-moving, fixed-wing aircraft such as the one seen above.
Before the advent of smart bombs guided by GPS or laser, dropping bombs and achieving the desired effect on target was as much an art as a skill, and always required a specialist ‘bombardier’ in the aircraft. As aerial bombers advanced, the addition of more capable bombsights increased accuracy further.
Something tells me the Daesh Reaper will lack any sophisticated bomb-aiming equipment, guided missiles, or even skilled pilots for that matter. To be truly deadly, UAVs require smart weapons such as the Hellfire or GBU-12 Paveway, both of which are on the MQ-9 Reaper.
The complexities involved in arming drones has meant only a handful of other countries have invested in developing the technology. That’s slowly changing, but mainly because China is establishing its own armed drone capability with smart weapon integration, which it seems happy to export to other countries around the world.
Nevertheless, I would not underestimate the Daesh UAV just yet. It might not have the capability to match an MQ-9 Reaper or Chinese Wing Loong, though it could replicate a new capability emerging in the defence space; the loitering armed ‘kamikaze’ drone.
For me, the new Daesh UAV has more similarities with equipment such as Aerovironment’s Switchblade UAV, which can provide full-motion video to troops on the ground but with a high-explosive warhead can, once it has identified a suitable target, be guided into the vehicle/building/person like a guided missile.
Once Daesh realise that releasing bombs from a UAV is a futile endeavor, we could potentially see them adopt this kamikaze UAV concept of operations. That’s why many militaries, particularly those in Iraq, are investing in counter-UAV technologies and will have to continue to do so for the forseeable future.
Maybe the mainstream media can focus on this in the future, rather than making far-fetched comparisons that are blatantly wrong.
If you wish to read more on armed UAVs and also China’s emerging combat UAV capabilities, see the Feb/Mar edition of Unmanned Vehicles.