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Grim Reaper: Type Of Drone That Killed Soleimani Has Ties To Nellis

An MQ-9 Reaper from the 489th Attack Squadron flies above Creech Air Force Base 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Tom Demerly

An MQ-9 Reaper from the 489th Attack Squadron flies above Creech Air Force Base 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The 200,000 people who packed Nellis Air Force Base in November for the Aviation Nation airshow got a glimpse of the kind of attack drone that killed an Iranian general earlier this month.

Along with the flashy fighter jets and giant transport planes, an MQ-9 Reaper performed a flyover before quietly heading back into the Nevada desert. It’s the same type of remotely piloted aircraft that the American military used to kill Gen. Qasem Soleimani at the Baghdad airport, sparking war fears in the Middle East.

The Reaper made its first public appearance at Nellis during Aviation Nation, and that “speaks to the evolution of airpower,” according to aeronautics and military expert Tom Demerly, who wrote about the flyover for The Aviationist website.

“That’s what Nellis Air Force Base is all about,” Demerly told State of Nevada. “Nellis remains at the leading edge at the evolution of airpower in every way, and that includes the integration of remotely piloted aircraft into the total airpower story.”

Unlike other airpower, Demerly describes the MQ-9 as a simple machine that is relatively slow but isn't easily detected by radar and can stay in position over a target for hours. 

He said it is generally loaded with three different kinds of weapons, including the laser-guided smart bombs and hellfire missiles made famous in the Gulf War.

He predicted that future air combat will team piloted and drone aircraft, with the pilot serving as “the quarterback” of the force and remotely piloted craft serving as “wingmen.”

Demerly can't say for sure what the base is working on but he does have an educated guess.

“One of the things that aircrews at Nellis are working on with remotely piloted aircraft is to integrate the use of remotely piloted aircraft with piloted aircraft such as F-35 joint-strike fighter,” he said.

Demerly said he witnessed what might have been training for that scenario during an excursion last year to the Nellis test range.

Tom Demerly, military and aviation writer

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