Drones Join Fighter Jets in Striking Targets in Iraq


The U.S. military has turned to drones to help launch airstrikes against Islamic militants in northern Iraq.

The Defense Department acknowledged early on that aerial drones, known as remotely piloted aircraft in military speak, would be part of the effort to gather intelligence on and, if necessary, bomb militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaeda inspired Islamic group that controls much of the northern part of the country.

President Obama last week cited as reasons for authorizing the airstrikes in the country the group’s advances in the northern Kurdistan region. Militants had reportedly overwhelmed Kurdish fighters and threatened to attack U.S. military and diplomatic personnel in Irbil in the northeast and Yazidi minorities on Mount Sinjar in the northwest.

On Friday, a drone officially identified as an MQ-1 Predator armed with Hellfire missiles struck a mortar position near Irbil and killed several militants. On Saturday, a mix of fighter and drone aircraft destroyed military combat vehicles, including armored personnel carriers and an armed truck. (Ironically, some of the damaged vehicles were reportedly American-made Humvees the militants had captured from Iraqi forces.)

We’re interested in learning more about how the manned and unmanned aircraft are apparently working in tandem to conduct the strikes — and where they’re based. The Navy has released photographs of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets flying from the USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf to conduct operations in Iraq. But what about the drones, as well as the C-17 and C-130 cargo aircraft that airdropped food and water to the stranded civilians?

We’re also curious why the military seems to be using the MQ-1 Predator — the workhorse of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — rather than the bigger MQ-9 Reaper, which can loiter over an area for longer periods of time, carry more payload and, over the next few decades, is slated to replace the Predator in the Air Force’s drone inventory. (Perhaps all the Reapers are being used in Afghanistan?)

Both unmanned aircraft are made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., which last month unveiled an enhanced drone cockpit station for operators.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Andy

    For this kind of war, Drone still cheaper than an F16 and f18 and it can be in the air more than 24 hrs at the time….

    • ronaldo

      Couldn’t agree more.

    • xXTomcatXx

      Except for the logistics tail behind the UAVs. The carrier brings it’s own logistics (save for maybe a tanker which is already in theater). The Predators require Satellite time, maintenance crews to be setup, a secure airfield, and a weapons cache. Which if not in place already would take at least a few days to setup. And if you think about it, the logistics and some of flight time would already be paid for by the preplanned day-to-day operations of the carrier.

      • Kim

        The logistics tail behind an UAV vs. the one behind an F-16 are probably very different. My guess the F-16 is the more expensive one, too, in part because the pilot is way more expensive to educate and ‘maintain’, than his/her equivalent commandeering a UAV. Add to this the risk and mess of a pilot being captured on enemy territory.

        • blight_asdf

          The UAV is a low performance aircraft with logistics primarily those of teleoperation, which leave a smallish footprint at the airport they are flown from, and a more dispersed footprint elsewhere associated with satellite communications. Then there’s the spart partstrain that extends from the airbase back to suppliers in the US, and the simpler aircraft, manned or unmanned, has a reduced parts demand.

          The F-16 needs no SATCOM (though in practice some degree of remote command and control is required, we do not send aircraft into the blue yonder without micromanagement). High performance jet requires expensive high performance parts. Jet engine has greater fuel demands and is more expensive than a turboprop UAV.

          When we switch to jet UAV’s then we’ll see the logistical costs match those of the modern high-performance fighter jets.

          • Guest

            Probably not going to match that of manned fighter jets. The UAS will be less expensive over the long run due to a smaller operational foot print. Won’t need the pilots on station, reducing all the logistics tail associated with supporting the pilots (barracks, food, medical care, sanitation) and the systems in the aircraft supporting the pilot (oxygen, pressurization, video displays, ejection seat).

        • xXTomcatXx

          These aren’t F’16s they’re F-18s and therefore operating off of an Aircraft Carrier. The pilot’s have been paid for in both the F-18 and UAV cases so that should not factor into this equation. These F-18 and there logistics tails would otherwise be costing money no matter where they were stationed. The only additional cost incurred here is fuel and an uptick in flight hours. Still less than setting up from scratch a UAV facility.

    • Drones are not necessarily cheaper.

      Everyone fixates on the pilot and forgets drones often have more than one operator as well as everyone involved in getting the signal from the operator to the drone. They also require ground crews to arm, fuel and maintain them. Crews that are much closer to the enemy than the comparative longer range of manned aircraft.

      Everyone seems to be forgetting the puny weapons load of drones vs, manned aircraft. More sorties cost more money.

      Then there’s the comparative short range and lack of refueling capability. Airbases in close proximity have logistics and security requirements/costs.

      • Andy

        Drones are not necessarily cheaper.?
        1=diesel vs jet fuel
        2=alot less fuel per fly than F18.
        3=maintenance alot less than F18.
        4=stay on the targets alot longer without notice.
        Again this is a difference war.

        • Andy –

          5 – what does a satellite cost to bounce signals off of
          6 – the telecommunications equipment and round the clock personnel to man and maintain it. to control the drone…
          7 – the multiple crewmembers and shifts needed to operate a drone

      • Guest

        Depends on the mission set. But generally, the logistics tail favors the drones. Manned fighters need ground crews for their operations as well as drones, and they need MORE people than drones because drones have fewer and less complex systems than manned fighters.

        F-16s and other air-to-ground manned aircraft are good for going out and killing things we know about, not so much for hanging around taking out targets of opportunity. Consider that the F-16s tactical radius is around 360nm, with 6x 500lb bombs. Goes out, drops 6 weapons, hits six targets, comes back. But for the missions going on out there, 500lb may be overkill. So the Reaper with 2x 500lb and 4x Hellfires can hit the same number of targets, AND hang around for 8-10 hours longer than the F-16.

        As to range, the F-16 has a tactical range around 400nm, depending on loadout. For the MQ-9, if cruising at 180kgs, and endurance 16 hours, range gets out to 2800nm. Heck, the F-16s ferry range is around 2000nm with external tanks. Also, both the manned fighters and drones are operating out of the same bases and cover all of Afghanistan, but the drones can do it without refueling, so I don’t think range is much of an argument.

        • Tweak your scenario and the drones can’t fulfill the mission. Sure in a low intensity or target poor environment drones have some advantages. They go away when there’s a multitude of targets, response time s need to be quicker because of fleeting targets and more types of munitions are required.

          Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. I just chafe at the drone fandom enamored with technology instead of tactical realities.

          • Guest

            Low intensity and target poor environment is exactly the point the original poster made. “For this kind of war”, thank you for seeing it our way.

            Libya was neither a low intensity or target poor environment yet drones were key players in the air war. Drones that can loiter on station to take advantage of TST or cross-cue targets to inbound strikers that don’t have the on station loiter time empowers all assets.

            The tactical realities of the conflicts we are currently involved with fits well with how we are employing drones thusfar. I agree though, that drones should not be seen as the hammer to drive every nail.

  • jamesb

    And the Air Force finally gets into the fight, eh?

  • oblatt22

    Really is an all American show – Americans paying for the bombers the bombs and the targets too.

    • Matthew UK

      “Mostly” an American show. Don’t forget us Brits. Our C130s are there dropping aid and our always-in-the-fight Tornados are doing intel missions. Go RAF!

      • spurr

        Well, actually it’s mostly a “City of London interests” show, as the numbskulls in Washington DC (by this I include those numbskulls of the CFR and other neo con so-called shitn tanks) take instructions from the international financial masters, who are mostly headquartered in London.

        Who with a sound mind and education would actually believe that Obama or US Cuntgressmen are running the show?!

  • rtsy

    “We’re also curious why the military seems to be using the MQ-1 Predator — the workhorse of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — rather than the bigger MQ-9 Reaper.”

    Perhaps the generals are looking to get rid of the older model Predators by putting some extra miles on them. One of the original selling points for UAV systems was that they were essential disposable. Now that the next gen UCAVs are coming online the Predators may look like old tech.

  • retired462

    For this situation: A-10’s &drones!

    • Super Tomcat

      Where are the A-10s going to land??? The F-18 Super Hornets could fly 2 missions by the time the A-10s get there.
      Go Navy!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • blight_asdf

        Between the lines, it sounds like the Turks won’t let us fly missions against ISIS?

      • retired462

        Don’t write off Turkey! Strafing with the GAU-8 is the way to go! Been there – done that!

        • Tiger

          Kevin Bacon please note; Joe Carroll has adopted the A-10 cult. Hunt down these Followers…..

      • ronaldo

        Good sir, you’re quite blind to the facts.

        !. Most of the sorti’s flown are AF tankers in support of whatever aircraft are on site.

        2. The A-10 is refuelable from the air.

        2. F-16’s and F-15E’s are also in this fight.

        If you were real Navy you would have already known this.

      • The A10s will land at the same place the drones will land and the A10 will actually have a higher sortie rate. They’ll be closer and actually cheaper.

        I’m all for carrier based airpower (comes in handy when there isn’t an airfield) but sometimes the “Rah Rah” is just propaganda.

        • Tiger

          Point is, we do not need them. Other planes can do the task.

          • A pick up can move a tractor trailer load given enough trips/time. It’s hardly the best tool for the job.

    • Juramentado

      A-10s tactics occur at lower altitudes, which will expose them to more of the MANPAD envelope. The Hornet’s FLIR data is masked out; under the redact would be airspeed and altitude – it’s probably high enough to stay out of shoulder fired range.

  • Joe

    Air power to defeat organized insurgents backed by proper nation states. Worked so well in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam.

    American willful misunderstanding of getting involved in a land war in asia. Next we will be going in against sicilians where death is involved.

    • Will

      ISIL/ISIS has progressed beyond insurgency in Iraq & is fighting a conventional war there. It is using vehicles, artillery & units big enough to be detected & attacked from the air. It has never had a safe haven behind an international border. What it does have in both Iraq & in Syria are sizable populations who are willing to support it because of maltreatment by the national governments.
      Avoiding land wars in Asia has always been a platitude. More than half the population of the world is in Asia, along with key natural resources inc. the oil & gas that the global economy inc. the USA still depends on. Civilian deaths has always been a part of war. The exception that proved the rule was the North African desert during WW2, and even that was a small part of a bigger conflict where millions of civilians died.

    • Tiger

      We are not trying to defeat ISIS.

      • Tiger – CONCUR!!! and few are noticing…

  • Tom

    The 4 cylinder Rotax engine on the MQ-1’s sips fuel in comparison to the turbo prop on the MQ-9 granted it takes longer and the weapon load is smaller a MQ-1 with 6 Griffin missiles is probably the lowest cost way to conduct ISR and ground attack. The only thing is I don’t know how many drones can fly within a specified geographical area before they run into bandwidth issues.

  • Lance

    Well Iraq is a friendly environment for drones and a hovering drone may be helpful fighting a lower air threat foe like ISIS. How ever if we needed to fight in Syria or the South China sea drones would be out and you have to go with manned aircraft.

  • Guest

    Correction is required for the following section
    “We’re also curious why the military seems to be using the MQ-1 Predator — the workhorse of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — rather than the bigger MQ-9 Reaper, which can loiter over an area for longer periods of time,”

    The MQ-1 has a longer endurance than the MQ-9.

  • mhpr262

    I guess the drones are used to reconnoiter and constantly scan for targets which are then taken out by the F-18s. That way the Predators can preserve their weapon load for targets of opportunity when no manned jets are available.

  • IronV

    The Predator has certain advantages over the Reaper. It can be “packaged” quickly and loaded into a C-17 or C-130 for rapid deployment anywhere necessary. Reaper’s too big for that. Not saying that’s what happened here…


    With out eyes on the ground the CAS is not very effective.

    • Tiger

      That is what you have 300+ advisers for.

  • anthony

    I agree should have been done months ago!!

  • Tom

    Didn’t the Iraqi’s receive a bunch of SU-25 Frogfoots? Why aren’t we seeing more of those in the fight?

  • Ravi

    Media’s attention has shifted to US strikes

  • guest

    “We’re interested in learning more about where they’re (drones) based.



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