The MQ-9 Reaper has big shoes to fill.

Following the announcement that the much older MQ-1 Predator will be retired in March, the Reaper has been flexed to “a new approach,” according to a Monday announcement by U.S. Air Forces Central Command.

“[Reapers] are being tasked in a multi-role capacity, to include executing deliberate strikes, armed overwatch or close-air support missions, and then flexing to an ISR tasking — all in a single mission,” AFCENT said.

The Air Force command heralded this approach as a way to offer planners greater flexibility in choosing their optimal strike platform. This includes “a variety of manned and unmanned aircraft supporting operations, including, but not limited to, F-16s, B-52s, A-10s and MQ-9s.”

The new, multi-faceted tasking scheme was announced after the successful deployment of four 500-pound precision guided munitions from a single Reaper, “effectively destroying a Taliban narcotics facility in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 22,” according to AFCENT.

A pilot and sensor operator fly an MQ-9 Reaper training mission from a ground control station at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. The Reaper is a multi-functional aircraft that supports both reconnaissance and combat roles. (A1C Michael Shoemaker/Air Force)
A pilot and sensor operator fly an MQ-9 Reaper training mission from a ground control station at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. The Reaper is a multi-functional aircraft that supports both reconnaissance and combat roles. (A1C Michael Shoemaker/Air Force)

On Feb. 14, Creech Air Force Base in Nevada foreshadowed the change as well, announcing that the Air Force will shift entirely to MQ-9 Reapers for UAV combat missions after the Predator’s sunset. The Air Force also flies unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawks for reconnaissance missions.

First Lt. Annabel Monroe, a spokeswoman for Air Combat Command, said that while the active-duty Air Force and Air National Guard will stop flying the MQ-1 after March 9, contractors flying the older platform in the Middle East will continue through December.

The Air Force first introduced the MQ-9 Reaper in 2006 as the Predator’s planned successor. The MQ-9 can fly faster, climb higher and is optimized for combat with more weapons capacity, according to officials at Creech.

Given the Reaper’s significant loiter time, its wide-range sensors, multi-mode communications suite and precision weapons — “it provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets,” according to the Air Force.