By Kris Osborn
The Air Force is in the early phases of adding new weapons to the Reaper drone platform, a large 66-foot unmanned system able to conduct aerial surveillance and weapons attacks in key areas across the globe.
The Reaper currently fires the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, a 500-pound laser-guided weapon called the GBU-12 Paveway II, and Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAMs which are free-fall bombs engineered with a GPS and Inertial Navigation Systems guidance kit, Air Force acquisition officials told Scout Warrior. JDAM technology allows the weapons to drop in adverse weather conditions and pinpoint targets with “smart” accuracy.
The Air Force Military Deputy for Acquisition told Scout Warrior in an interview last year that the service has begun the process of adding new weapons to the Reaper, an effort which will likely involve engineering a universal weapons interface.
“We are looking at what kind of weapons do we need to integrate in. We're looking at anything that is in our inventory, including the small diameter bomb. We're working to get universal armament interface with an open mission systems architecture,” Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch said.
A universal interface would allow the Reaper to more quickly integrate new weapons technology as it emerges and efficiently swap or replace bombs on the drone without much difficulty, Bunch explained.
“If I can design to that interface, then it costs me less money and takes me less time to integrate a new weapon - I don’t want to go in and open up the software of the airplane. As long as I get the interface right, I can integrate that new weapon much sooner,” he added.
There are many potential advantages to adding to the arsenal of weapons able to fire from the Reaper. These include an ability to strike smaller targets, mobile targets or terrorists, such as groups of enemy fighters on-the-move in pick-up trucks as well as enemies at further ranges, among other things.
Drone attacks from further ranges could reduce risk to the platform and help strikes against Al Qaeda or ISIS targets to better achieve an element of surprise. Furthermore, an ability to hit smaller and mobile targets could enable the Reaper drone to have more success with attacks against groups of ISIS or other enemy fighters that reduce the risk of hurting nearby civilians. Both ISIS and Al Qaeda are known for deliberately seeking to blend in with civilian populations to better protect themselves from U.S. drone strikes.
Also, at some point in the future it may not be beyond the realm of possibility to arm the Reaper for air-to-air engagements as well.
One new possibility for the Reaper drone could be the addition for the GBU-39B or Small Diameter Bomb, Bunch said.
The Small Diameter Bomb uses a smart weapons carrier able to include four 250-pound bombs with a range of 40 nautical miles. The bomb’s small size reduces collateral damage and would allow the Reaper to achieve more kills or attack strikes per mission, Air Force officials said.
The Small Diameter Bomb, which can strike single or multiple targets, uses GPS precision. It is currently fired from the F-15E, F-16, F-117, B-1, B-2, F-22 and F-35, Air Force officials stated.
The Air Force currently operates 104 Reaper drones and has recently begun configuring the platform with additional fuel tanks to increase range. The Reaper Extended Range, or ER as it’s called, is intended to substantially increase and build upon the current 4,000-pound fuel capacity of the drone with a range of 1,150 miles.
The upgrades to Reaper, would add two 1,350-pound fuel tanks engineered to increase the drones endurance from 16 hours to more than 22 hours, service officials said.