What is a Reaper drone? Here’s what to know about the U.S. military’s MQ-9 drones.

What is a Reaper drone? Here's what to know about the U.S. military's MQ-9 drones.

The MQ-9 Reaper drone is a remotely operated aircraft used by the U.S. military overseas that has also been adapted for other purposes inside America’s borders. The U.S. Air Force describes the Reaper as primarily an “intelligence-collection asset,” but it can also be armed with Hellfire missiles.

“It provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination, and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets,” the Air Force says on its website.

An MQ-9 Reaper drone with U.S. Customs and Border Protection is seen November 4, 2022, at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
An MQ-9 Reaper drone with U.S. Customs and Border Protection is seen November 4, 2022, at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

John Moore/Getty Images

A Reaper was conducting what the Pentagon called an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission over the Black Sea in southeastern Europe on March 14, 2023, when the U.S. said a Russian fighter jet collided with it, forcing officials to crash it into the water.

The incident heightened tensions between the two nuclear powers amid Moscow’s yearlong war against Ukraine.

While Russia said it would try to recover the wreckage from the Black Sea, U.S. officials downplayed concerns.

Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the drone likely broke up in the crash and was under 4,000 to 5,000 feet of water. He also said the U.S. took mitigating measures to prevent the loss of any sensitive intelligence. 

“We are quite confident that whatever was of value is no longer of value,” Milley said.

How big is a Reaper drone?

With a wingspan of 66 feet, the 36-foot-long Reapers can reach an altitude of up to 50,000 feet and have a range of 1,150 miles.

A Reaper drone can carry up to eight laser-guided Hellfire missiles, according to the Air Force.

The drones are operated remotely with a basic crew of a pilot to control the drone and a crew member to operate sensors and guide weapons.

Reapers are manufactured by Southern California-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. According to the company, the drones can remain airborne for over 27 hours, and an extended-range version with “wing-borne” fuel pods can last without refueling for 34 hours.

But they’re not cheap. In 2020, the Air Force reported new Reapers cost about $32 million each, according to Forbes.

Where are Reaper drones used?

Reaper drones have been used to carry out U.S. military attacks, including the 2020 strike that killed top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, and in 2021 against the Taliban as the militants were regaining control of Afghanistan amid the pullout of U.S. forces.

The drones aren’t just used by the military. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has said it’s used General Atomics’ Predator B drones — the non-weaponized version of the Reaper — to monitor and respond to “threats at the nation’s border regions and approaches to the U.S.”

In 2017, the Air Force noted how the drone helped firefighters battle the 2013 Rim Fire in California.

“We were able to fly at night with our infrared cameras,” Maj. Jason Flowers told CBS News at the time. “We could also see through the smoke, which allows us to give them quick information so that they can plan more effectively.”

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