The drones hunting ISIS have grown more lethal

The Air Force Special Operations Command runs 37 Reaper drones that have just been upgraded with better sensors, upgraded weapons software, and extra fuel tanks so they can kill more targets and watch more objectives on missions against ISIS and other enemies.

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An MQ-9 Reaper prepares to land after a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Photo: US Air Force Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson

Identifying ISIS targets often requires a long information-collection period, and killing them takes a rapid engagement once the kill order is given. The upgraded drones are better at both stages of the hunt.

The sensor ball from the original MQ-9 Reapers was replaced with a high-definition camera. The software that controls the camera was also upgraded to enable automatic detection of threats and the ability to track 12 moving targets at once. Better communications gear was installed to allow ground controllers and others to see the higher quality video coming from the drones.

Reapers can carry up to 14 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. The upgraded version carries the same munitions but can now fire them in a “super ripple,” firing a missile every 0.32 seconds. The external fuel tanks give the Reaper pilots more time to identify targets, track them, and plan the engagement before firing.

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An MQ-9 Reaper on the flightline. Photo: US Air Force Staff Sgt. John Bainter

All this comes at a cost to weight. To increase thrust and improve takeoff performance, a system to inject alcohol and water into the engine was added and a four-bladed propeller was incorporated. The landing gear was also improved.

American drones have already had a lot of success in the fight against ISIS. Jihadi John, the British-born militant who conducted many of the Islamic State’s early, high-profile executions, was killed by two Hellfire missiles fired from a drone.

A drone strike in Jul. 2015 killed 31 insurgents including Hafiz Saeed, the man thought to have led ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The drones were upgraded under a $34 million Medium Altitude Long Endurance Tactical (MALET) Lead-Off Hitter (LOH) contract.

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