May 14, 2014
Predator to be retired by USAF in favour of Reaper
But with severe budget constraints, the US Air Force is looking to cut the number of UAV combat air patrols from 65 to 55. That number could drop further if sequestration funded levels are not raised in 2016, as is likely.
That doesn’t mean the service is abandoning its UAV program, but the future looks much more secure for the Reaper than the Predator.
The USAF need to double down efforts to develop unmanned aerial aircraft that can operate in contested environments. The Predators and the Reapers have been terrific, but they cannot operate well in a contested environment. In Afghanistan, no one was able to shoot them down or interfere with their operation.
The Air Force has purchased a total of 259 Predators, but crashes and retirements have left the service with a current fleet size of 154 platforms, which the service plans to retire between fiscal 2015 and 2017. Those plans are dependent on congressional decisions, but there has been no groundswell against divesting the MQ-1s, likely because they would be replaced with an all-Reaper fleet.
The MQ-9 Reapers offer better payload capabilities and range, particularly if they are equipped with a major re-winging program that extends the operational capability of the Reaper by about 10 hours. The standard Reaper is configured for 30 hours for the ISR model and roughly 23 hours if armed with Hellfire missiles. General Atomics, the developer of the MQ-1 and MQ-9, said the extended-range model would increase those times to 42 hours for ISR and 35 hours with the Hellfire.
In other words, the Predators are falling victim to their faster, stronger brothers. That leaves the Air Force to find a home for over 100 outdated, unwanted, but still functional surveillance drones.