The U.S. Air Force has announced that it is officially moving to retire the MQ-1 Predator drone in early 2018 with the newer MQ-9 Reaper drone to better address its combat needs. The Predator has served as both a vital tool for the U.S. troops and symbol of modern warfare itself, but the drone—and how it was used—drew more than its share of controversy.
While replacement of the MQ-1 with the MQ-9 has been mulled for some time now, this week Air Force officials announced at least one attack squadron will stop flying the MQ-1 as soon as July, with the goal of full service-wide transition by next year.
The upgrade comes at a time when drones are playing more of a role in close air support missions than they did during the beginning days of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Predator has proven to be a very effective UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), especially given that it was never designed to fire missiles. The MQ-1 was first used to gather intelligence on the battlefield. As the service began using them more often, they were tricked out with laser-guided Air-to-Ground Missile-114 Hellfire, though, this subsequently limited its payload to 450 pounds. Another drawback is that its highest altitude is 25,000 feet and caps off at 84 mph.
The Reaper, by comparison, can fly up to 50,000 feet in altitude, has a cruise speed of 194 mph and can carry a payload of 800 pounds. It’s a much more flexible drone for military planners, especially with the addition of the Multi-Spectral Targeting System. The range of sensors it has are great for keeping track of targets on the ground. The full-motion video from the image sensors can be viewed as a stream. It can also fire four laser-guided, air-to-ground 114 Hellfire missiles, twice the number of the MQ-1.
Perhaps the much better MQ-9 will result in fewer civilian deaths that’s attached to the MQ-1. While the MQ-1 has been in production since 1995, its most notable uses have been in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars of the 2000s and thereafter. Though the U.S. government does not release data on the number of deaths connected to its drones, Senator Lindsey Graham said in 2013 that drone strikes have killed 4,500 people. Counting drone strike deaths, be they those of the intended terrorist target or civilians, is a very murky exercise. As Wired points out, the lack of information on who these drones exactly kill challenges the “high accuracy” claim the military attaches to them:
Graham’s death count would raise questions about the much-vaunted precision of the strikes. Using the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s count, the U.S. has launched between 416 and 439 drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia since the U.S. first successfully weaponized an MQ-1 Predator a decade ago. If Graham’s right, each strike would have to kill more than 10 people. It’s certainly possible — the 100-pound Hellfire missile carried by the drones is capable of it — but U.S. counterterrorism officials typically describe the drones as a tool geared for the targeting of a specific terrorist at a time, with minimal civilian casualties. (That isn’t necessarily the case: Sometimes the CIA kills people with drones without knowing who exactly they are.)
Yet Graham’s count is simultaneously low. Judging from the context of his remarks, he’s evidently not counting the U.S. military’s drone strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan. So the real number of deaths from the strikes between the covert CIA drone program and the U.S. military’s still rarely acknowledged efforts is likely even higher.
In 2016, former President Barack Obama claimed drones killed up to 116 non-enemy combatants in 473 terror strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya between January 2009 and the end of 2015. But the Bureau of Investigative Journalism tallied 380 to 801 civilian casualties during that time, based on news reports, NGO investigators, leaked government documents, and court papers.
Basically, these drones are not as accurate as the government claims they are. With the new MQ-9 taking over as the military’s new go-to drone, let’s hope it is more accurate in killing its intended targets than its predecessor.