ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
A small drone aircraft known as the Predator has emerged as one of the most useful and controversial weapons in the U.S. military's arsenal. The Predator played a role in catching Saddam Hussein; in killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq; and in killing suspected terrorists in Pakistan and in Yemen.
Well, now a bigger, stronger version of the Predator is about to be rolled out. It's called the Reaper. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly made a visit to Creech Air Force Base in Nevada to check it out.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: At 36 feet, the new Reaper is nine feet longer than the Predator. It's also faster and it can fly twice as high. But let's get to the point.
Lieutenant Colonel JONATHAN GREENE (42nd Attack Squadron, Creech Air Force Base): One of the very big differences is its ability to carry 3,000 pounds of weapons.
KELLY: Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Greene. He is commander of the Air Force's 42nd Attack Squadron, which is home to the Reaper. Greene and I are standing in a hanger in the Nevada desert, about an hour's drive north of Las Vegas. And we're staring at the hulking silver silhouette of an MQ-9 Reaper.
Col. GREENE: We're looking at the wings now. We'll typically fly right now with GBU-12s, which are a 500-pound laser-guided precision weapons, bombs, or AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.
KELLY: This is a Hellfire right here.
Col. GREENE: Yes, it is.
KELLY: And this is the key advantage a Reaper can offer. Like the Predator, it's a drone in military jargon, a UAV, or unmanned aerial vehicle. When the Reaper flies combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan this fall, the pilots will be sitting right here in Nevada controlling their planes by a remote control.
But while the smaller Predator was conceived as an intelligence-gathering tool, and only later retrofitted with a couple of Hellfire missiles, the Reaper was designed to attack. Here's an example of what that means. Last summer, when the U.S. military was engaged in a massive manhunt for Zarqawi, Colonel Greene says the Predator helped find him.
Col. GREENE: Saw him, followed him and then commanders in the field used that information to call in the air strikes from the F-16s.
KELLY: They needed F-16s because the Predator is too flimsy to carry the big bombs needed to blow up the house where Zarqawi was hiding.
Col. GREENE: If that was a Reaper there, we could have done the whole thing ourselves. I mean, we could have watched them, followed them, gotten the clearance to strike, and we could've done it.
KELLY: That represents a huge step forward for the military. The Reaper can carry as many bombs as a fighter jet, but it's unmanned status means it's lighter, so it can hover for hours waiting for a terrorist target to appear. It can carry missiles at the same time, if you don't want to level a whole building but just take out, say, a single sniper sitting in a third-story window, and with the pilot sitting safely back home in the States, no American lives are risked.
Now, all this is not to say the Reaper is without problems. Legal and ethical questions are bound to be raised about a machine the military has branded the first hunter-killer UAV. Critics have accused the Predator of carrying out assassinations and asked whether terror suspects who pose no immediate threat shouldn't be arrested rather than blown up. Green(ph) concedes similar questions will be asked about the Reaper.
Col. GREEN: But I think those questions get raised about anything you do in combat when you're fighting a war. As long as you have the legal authority and the moral high ground, then that's what we're out there to do is protect out country in the war on terror.
KELLY: There are also technical challenges for the Reaper to overcome.
(Soundbite of truck)
KELLY: That's the sound of a truck backing a Reaper off the runway and into its hangar. On the day we visited, dark clouds hung low, and wind was kicking up dust clouds big enough that the officers greeted me with a friendly welcome to Baghdad. High winds mean a Reaper can't fly. Like the Predator, it's a glorified glider. Any precipitation or even clouds can cause it to crash. That's a real limitation in the mountains of Afghanistan.
(Soundbite of buzzing)
KELLY: The hangar doors slide shut to keep out the dust and wind. Officers are taking no chances with this Reaper. It's an $8 million investment, and it's also the only one they've got. Another is scheduled to arrive here next week, then one every month over the summer as the squadron gears up for combat this fall. Intensive training is underway for the flight crews.
Unidentified Man #2: All right, we're getting going again. We're going to knock out the (unintelligible) section where...
KELLY: Major Casey Tidgewell(ph) is one of the instructors here at Creech Air Force Base. His students, sprawled around a conference table, mostly come from fighter and bomber backgrounds. Tidgewell says they need those combat instincts to fly a Reaper. One pilot in training, Major John Chesser(ph), arrived here from the cockpit of an F-15E, known as the Strike Eagle. He argues he might actually see more action flying an unmanned drone.
Major JOHN CHESSER (United States Air Force): For example, a thousand hours of Strike Eagle, never dropped a real bomb, did training the whole entire time. Come here, probably within the first, I don't know month or two, will have dropped several bombs. So it may not be as sexy, but we're going to definitely get the mission done.
KELLY: Chesser also sees a distinct advantage to flying by remote control. Instead of long tours of duty overseas, he points out you get to go home and eat dinner with your wife. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News.