An MQ-9A Reaper assigned to the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron sits on the ramp at Creech Air Force Base carrying eight Hellfire missiles. (U.S. Air Force photo by Haley Stevens).

America’s Reaper drone just doubled its lethality.

The US Air Force announced it has conducted the first flight of an MQ-9A Reaper that had been configured to carry eight AGM-114 Hellfire missiles — twice the number the drone normally carries, National Interest reported.

The Reaper flew with eight live AGM-114 Hellfire missiles September 10 as part of what the service calls the drone’s “persistent attack” role.

More weapons, coupled with longer-range, higher-fidelity sensors and improved fuel tanks naturally increases dwell time over enemy targets, an ability to re-task to new targets as intelligence emerges and of course put more effects on target when needed, National Interest reported. 

The added weapons are part of an Air Force software upgrade program called the MQ-9 Operational Flight Program 2409. 

“Previous to this software, the MQ-9 was limited to four AGM-114s across two stations. The new software allows flexibility to load the Hellfire on stations that previously were reserved for 500-pound class bombs or fuel tanks,” an Air Force report states. 

This was the first flight test of the MQ-9 Reaper carrying eight Hellfire missiles. (U.S. Air Force photo by Haley Stevens).

The Reaper can still be armed with 500-pound bombs on any of the stations as well, so the platform will retain its attack flexibility, depending upon mission requirements, National Interest reported. 

The Reaper will now fire the AIM-9X in addition to the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, a 500-pound laser-guided weapon called the GBU-12 Paveway II, and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAMs.

These are free-fall bombs engineered with a GPS and Inertial Navigation Systems guidance kit, National Interest reported.

This added Hellfire attack possibility introduces several new tactical possibilities and, one could certainly observe, helps transition the platform into a modern warfare posture in an area of great power competition.

Certainly in a large-scale mechanized warfare scenario, additional tank-killing Hellfire missile attack options could prove tactically useful, National Interest reported.

During the last fifteen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Reaper conducted precision-drone strikes against terrorists and other high-value targets. 

Now the Air Force seems to be working toward further transitioning the combat-tested drone into preparations for great power warfare, National Interest reported.

This appears to be a next step along an evolving trajectory for the drone through which the Air Force has consistently added new weapons and expanded the mission scope.

But while the rate of enemy kills will no doubt increase with this added firepower, so too will innocent civilians — the people pushing the buttons won’t be any smarter.

In 2019, for example, a US drone strike intended to hit an Islamic State hideout in Afghanistan killed at least 30 civilians resting after a day’s labor in pine nut fields in the mountainous Wazir Tangi, eastern Nangarhar province, Reuters reported.

The United Nations says nearly 4,000 civilians were killed or wounded in the first half of the year. That included a big increase in casualties inflicted by government and US-led foreign forces.

— with files from National Interest & Reuters