2. The MQ-9’s Cost and Performance

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Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson

A fully-loaded MQ-9 Reaper taxis down an Afghanistan runway

Second of five parts (part one here)

Because of Reaper’s nature, unit-cost estimates can be tricky. Various media reports cite a per-unit cost from $4 million to $5 million. They are quite incorrect.

Because they are integral to Reaper’s ability to operate, the ground components for it must be included, and a Combat Air Patrol, or “CAP” (i.e. the specified Reaper operating unit), consists of four air vehicles, not one. Accordingly, the Air Force factsheet for Reaper cites a unit cost not for one air vehicle but for a Reaper CAP (“four aircraft with sensors”) at $53.5 million in FY 2006 dollars (which would be $60.3 million in 2012 dollars).[1] But even that Air Force fact sheet calculation is incomplete.

It does not include development and other costs that are included in DOD’s summary Selected Acquisition Reports (SARs).  The latest SAR available (from December 2010) shows a cost of $11.3 billion (in 2008 dollars) for the then-planned total purchase of 399[2] individual Reaper air vehicles and associated ground equipment.[3]  In contemporary 2012 dollars that comes to $12.1 billion, which calculates to $30.2 million for each individual Reaper and its share of ground equipment, or $120.8 million for a complete, operable CAP of four.[4]  (Given the infrequency at which Reaper flies in comparison to typical combat aircraft, the four Reaper calculation is apt for comparing to manned aircraft.  This issue is discussed more in later parts of this series.)

The actual cost for a Reaper unit is $120.8 million in 2012 dollars.  Given the newly announced reduction in Reaper production rates, the elements that Reaper uses but charged to other programs (summarized in Part 1) and the statement that some additional ground control stations may be bought, the $120.8 million unit cost is an underestimate; however, the data are unavailable to know by how much.

Reaper unit cost is well above that of the aircraft frequently compared to it: the F-16 and the A-10.  The Air Force’s “factsheet” on the F-16C cites an $18.8 million unit cost in 1998 dollars (or $27.2 million in 2012 dollars);[5] GAO cites F-16C unit procurement cost, not including R&D which is not readily available for inclusion, at $55 million per copy.[6]  For the A-10, the Air Force factsheet cites no estimate for the unit cost,[7] but GAO cited a total program unit cost (including R&D) at $11.8 million in 1994 dollars (or $18.8 million in 2012 dollars).  There have been modifications to the A-10 since that GAO estimate, even if they were to double the cost of the aircraft, it would remain a fraction of the cost to buy a Reaper unit.

Reaper is not cheaper to buy than aircraft it is compared to; it is multiples more expensive: from two to six times more costly.[8]

Nor is Reaper cheaper to operate, despite initial appearances.  Air Force flying hour cost data shows Reaper to cost only $3,624 per hour to fly in 2011 for what the Air Force terms “operational” flying hour costs.[9]  That compares to the much higher hourly cost to fly A-10s or F-16s: $17,780 per hour for the newly modified A-10C and $20,809 for an F-16C.  However, because each Reaper flies a large number of hours in the air, the math suppresses the per-hour Reaper number.  If the calculation is for total maintenance costs over the course of a year for a Reaper unit, the relationship changes:  at a per year cost of $5.1 million, per individual Reaper, and at $20.4 million per CAP, the Reaper shows itself to be well above the cost to maintain and operate over a year for an individual A-10C (at $5.5 million) or an F-16C (at $4.8 million).[10]  Annual operating unit cost for a Reaper unit is about four times the annual cost to operate an F-16 or an A-10.

 Infrastructure: Much of those higher costs are driven by the infrastructure needed to operate Reaper, which has an extensive infrastructure on the ground: the GCS, satellite link, and the local control unit for take offs and landings.  Most of this support is not analogous to manned aircraft.  For example, without a control tower and its personnel, a manned aircraft remains capable of landing, and without centralized mission control, they are able to perform their missions quite effectively.  (Indeed, many argue convincingly that micro-management of manned aircraft by a central command seriously degrades effectiveness.)

Reaper’s infrastructure necessitates at least 171 personnel for each CAP: these include 43 mission control personnel, including seven pilots and seven sensor operators, 59 launch, recovery and maintenance personnel (including six more pilots and sensor operators), 66 Processing Exploitation Dissemination personnel for intelligence and its support (including 14 more maintenance personnel) and three “other equipment” personnel.[11]

As some say, drones like Reaper are not “unmanned;” hence the term “remotely piloted vehicle.”

 Endurance:  Reaper’s ability to loiter over the battlefield for long periods (attempting to collect intelligence, find targets, and engage them) is much longer than manned combat aircraft; however, there are some limitations.  Reaper, like many aircraft, must trade off gas (and loiter time) for munitions and cannot take off with a full load of both.  General Atomics, and many media reports, assert day long endurance, even 30 hours,[12] but that is with no munitions adding weight and drag.  Others, such as DOT&E and Global Security note the trade-off between fuel and weapons and that actual endurance is “approximately” [13] 14 hours (or “up to” 14 hours[14]) for a Reaper carrying weapons.  Nonetheless, this lesser loiter time is a multiple of what manned aircraft perform, even with mid-mission aerial refueling.  An A-10 might have a prolonged mission of four hours, usually less. (CBO reports an Air Force assessment of a limit of 12 hours for the pilot of a single seat aircraft;[15] however, that is very uncommon and may only realistically pertain to U-2 reconnaissance aircraft.)

Survivability:  Reaper (like Predator) is fundamentally incapable of defending itself.  It lacks any ability to sense threats 360 degrees around itself; while it can “see” below and somewhat to the sides, it is through a “soda straw” (depending on the setting of the sensors).  If it does observe a threat, it is incapable of doing anything effective about it; not only is it quite slow, but with a high aspect ratio wing varying from 55 to 86 feet and a frail airframe unable to withstand more than a mild two “G” maneuver,[16] it is incapable of agile movement to get out of the way of immediate threats.  If it attempts high angle maneuvers, it may lose its link to satellite or ground control, which has in the past caused crashes.  It is also unarmored to survive a hit.  Reapers (and Predator) have been equipped with Stinger air to air missiles for a theoretical air-to-air capability, but with so little external awareness and no ability to maneuver, it is a meaningless “capability” adding little more than weight and drag.  (A Predator has been reported to have attempted, unsuccessfully, to engage an Iraqi aircraft in 2003 with a Stinger missile; the Predator was destroyed by the aircraft it attempted to engage.[17])  As analysts have commented, Reaper is survivable only in a “permissive” environment, which in truth means an absence of air defenses.  (This problem also explains why Reaper and Predator are reluctant to venture below 10,000 feet where they can become vulnerable to man portable guns and early vintage man portable air defense missiles.)

Reaper compares poorly to manned combat aircraft on survivability.  The A-10, for example, was thought by some to be vulnerable to modern air defenses of the sort above Iraq and Kosovo that it successfully engaged and survived.  In operation Desert Storm in 1991, A-10s were highly survivable, even in the presence of Iraq’s densest and more effective defenses; there, the A-10 had an attrition rate of 0.5 aircraft for every 1,000 sorties,[18] a rate that GAO found to be a statistically insignificant difference from the higher survivability rate of the F-117 stealth attack bomber.[19]  In the Kosovo air war, the A-10 had a higher survivability rate than the F-117.

Payload: One of the biggest improvements of Reaper over Predator is increased payload: 450 pounds for the Predator (specifically two Hellfire missiles), compared to an internal payload of 750 pounds (for sensors) and an external (wing mounted) payload of 3,000 pounds for Reaper (for weapons and/or fuel tanks).[20]  However, the weight carrying ability of the individual wing hard points limits what is in fact carried.[21]  While the Reaper is credited to be able to carry as many as 16 Hellfires[22] or four 500 pound laser guided bombs, CBO notes that a typical payload “varies up to” four Hellfire missiles and two 500 pound bombs.[23]

Despite being credited by many as also employing 500 pound GPS guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs, DOT&E reports that “ongoing developmental challenges precluded operational testing and fielding” Reaper with JDAMs.[24]

Reaper’s maximum payload is a fraction of what A-10s can and do carry.  Rather than the Reaper’s maximum 3,000 pound payload (or a typical payload of two Hellfires and two 500 pound laser guided bombs), the A-10 has a maximum payload of 16,000 pounds and is credited with carrying up to eighteen 500 pound bombs (guided or unguided).[25]  F-16’s, as bombers, typically carry two 2,000 pound bombs and additional fuel.[26]  (Some assess F-16’s at four 2,000 pound bombs or eight 500 pound bombs.[27])  However, this crude analysis of simple weight does not adequately measure the difference between Reaper and an aircraft such as the A-10, or even lesser aircraft.  This analysis ignores other very important issues, such as the nature, variety and delivery methods the A-10 can employ.  And, it ignores what many credit as the A-10’s most effective weapon, the GAU-8 cannon for which Reaper has no counterpart.  With its lesser weapons payload, Reaper is unable to loiter over the battlefield and employ weapons for more than a very limited number of targets.  Even five Reapers would not match the air to ground capability of one A-10.

However, one must also consider the relative ability to collect intelligence and find a target (and to distinguish if it should be attacked).  This is an area where drone advocates assert real superiority over manned aircraft.

Next: The Reaper’s Ability to Hunt Down Targets

Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. 


[1] See p. 2 of

[2] The 399 count includes the 396 bought under procurement account funding and three bought under research and development funding.

[3] See p. 11 of the DOD Summary SAR for all Major Defense Acquisition Programs for December 2010 at

[4] In the- year dollars, the program is $12.496 billion for 399 air vehicles, or $31.3 million each, or $125.3 million for a CAP.

[5] See the Air Force’s “factsheet” at

[6] See p. 9 of February 24, 2011 letter to Senator Carl Levin and Congressman Howard McKeon, Government Accountability Office, “Tactical Aircraft: Air Force Fighter Reports Generally Addressed Congressional Mandates, but Reflected Dated Plans and Guidance, and Limited Analyses,” GAO-11-323R, at

[7] See the Air Force fact sheet at

[8] Reaper, like virtually any DOD acquisition system, has also its cost overruns:  GAO estimates that, as of 2010, Reaper unit cost increased 32 percent (from $508.7 million for 33 aircraft to $2,406 million for 118 aircraft). See p. 6 of “Defense Acquisitions: DOD Could Achieve Greater Commonality and Efficiencies among Its Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” Government Accountability  Office, March 23, 2010, GAO-10-508T, at

[9] The flying hour cost data is from Air Force flying hour cost spread sheets available from the author on request.

[10] Some will find it strange that an A-10 costs more to operate per year than an F-16, but the A-10 has been flying significantly more hours per aircraft, and the conversion to the new “C” model has also increased costs.

[11] See slide 4 of “The Way Ahead: Remotely Piloted Aircraft in the United States Air Force,” briefing slides presented by Lt Gen Dave Deptula, Deputy Chief of Staff, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, undated, at The slide cites 168 people but the data on the slide indicate 171; 177 for surge purposes.

[12] See General Atomics fact sheet at

[13] P. 245, “FY 2011 Annual Report,” Director of Operational Test & Evaluation, December 2011, Department of Defense, at

[14] See Global Security website at

[15] P. 29 of CBO’s “Policy Options” at

[16] See Table 4 of Integration of UAS in the Civil Airworthiness Regulatory System: Present and Future, C. Cuerno-Rejado, R. Martinez-Val, E. Garcia-Julia, Universidad Politecnica de Madrid, Spanish Civil Aviation Authority, at  Note that A-10 and F-16s are stressed well above the MQ-9 to 7Gs.

[17] P. 5, CRS, “U.S. Unmanned Aerial Systems,” at

[18] P. 651, Gulf War Air Power Survey, Volume V, A Statistical Compendium and Chronology, Washington D.C. 1993.

[19] See pp. 99-102 of “Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation of the Air campaign,” General Accounting Office, July 1997, GAO-97-134, at

[20]  P. 219, DOT&E 2010 Annual Report, at

[21] See discussion of the wing hard points at or at the Wikipedia entry for MQ-9.

[22] P. 35, CRS, “U.S. Unmanned Aerial Systems,” at

[23] Pp. 4 & 16 (footnote #5), CBO, “Policy Options” at

[24] P. 245 of DOT&E 2011 Annual Report, at

[25] Air Force fact sheet at

[26] Air Force fact sheet at

[27] P. 1, CBO, “Policy Options” at