Balad Air Base, Iraq The airplane is the size of a jet fighter, powered by a turboprop engine, able to fly at 300 mph and reach 50,000 feet. It's outfitted with infrared, laser and radar targeting, and with a ton and a half of guided bombs and missiles.
The Reaper is loaded, but there's no one on board. Its pilot, as it bombs targets in Iraq, will sit at a video console 7,000 miles away in Nevada.
The arrival of these outsized U.S. "hunter-killer" drones, in aviation history's first robot attack squadron, will be a watershed moment even in an Iraq that has seen too many innovative ways to hunt and kill.
That moment, one the Air Force will likely keep low-key, is expected "soon," according to the regional U.S. air commander. How soon? "We're still working that," Lt. Gen. Gary North said.
The Reaper's first combat deployment is expected in Afghanistan, and senior Air Force officers estimate it will land in Iraq between this fall and next spring. They look forward to it.
"With more Reapers, I could send manned airplanes home," North said.
The Air Force is building a 400,000-square-foot expansion of the concrete ramp area now used for Predator drones at Balad, the biggest U.S. air base in Iraq, 50 miles north of Baghdad. That new staging area could be turned over to Reapers.
It's another sign that the Air Force is planning for an extended stay in Iraq, supporting Iraqi government forces in any continuing conflict, even if U.S. ground troops are drawn down in the coming years.
The estimated two dozen or more unmanned MQ-1 Predators now doing surveillance over Iraq have become mainstays of the U.S. war effort, offering round-the-clock airborne "eyes."
At 5 tons gross weight, the Reaper is four times heavier than the Predator. Its size - 36 feet long, with a 66-foot wingspan - is comparable to the profile of the Air Force's workhorse A-10 attack plane. It can fly twice as fast and twice as high as the Predator.