Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007 | 10 p.m.
CREECH AIR FORCE BASE -- The Air Force next month will deploy a new generation of pilotless airplane with the bombing power of an F-16 to help stop the stubborn Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
The Reaper is an upgraded version of the Predator, which has become one of the military's most sought-after planes since it first appeared in Afghanistan in 2001. The Reaper can fly three times as fast as a Predator and carry eight times more weaponry, such as Hellfire missiles, the Air Force said.
Most Reapers, like Predators, are flown from bases in the United States, such as Creech, which is about an hour north of the Strip.
The Reaper's greater range and speed make it better suited than the Predator to Afghanistan with its vast, rugged terrain. The Reaper will also be deployed to Iraq. Its speed and arms will let it track and kill moving targets able to elude a Predator, said Brig. Gen. James Poss, director of intelligence for Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Va.
Air Force officials cite the June 2006 killing in Iraq of al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was tracked by a Predator but ultimately killed by bombs dropped by an F-16. The Reaper “is ideal for that type of target,” said Lt. Col. Gregory Christ, director of staff at Creech.
Despite the Predator's success, field commanders wanted a faster, more lethal alternative, said Col. Charles Bartlett, leader of the Air Force's unmanned aircraft task force.
Such demand has prompted the Air Force to rush to train operators and crews. In 2003, the Air Force trained fewer than 40 Predator operators. In 2008, that will soar to 160. It has trained 10 Reaper operators this year, and expects to train 19 more in 2008.
The Reaper squadron will start small and has only four aircraft, said Maj. David Small, an Air Force spokesman. It will ultimately have 20 planes, he said.
The Reaper carries about the same payload as the F-16 but can stay aloft as much as eight times longer than the F-16, which must refuel about every two hours.
“You've got a lot of ammo circling overhead on call for short-notice strikes,” said John Pike, director of the military think tank Globalsecurity. “It seems like a good idea.”
Demand for Predator flights has exploded. This year, Predator flight hours are expected to exceed 70,000 hours, more than triple the total in 2003.
Combat pilots say they miss the feel of flying but say remote-control aircraft are here to stay.
“This is the future,” said Chad Miner, chief of weapons and tactics at Creech, a Predator trainer and an F-16 pilot. “I would love to ... jump in an F-16 and go. But I'm a more valuable asset to the military doing this. It's not the sexiest answer, but it's true.”