Drones serve in almost every role on the modern battlefield. From surveillance to direct combat, drones have reshaped how wars are fought. Here are some that could be considered the best, with concessions made to actual fielding.
Lethality: MQ-9 Reaper and GD Avenger
The MQ-9 Reaper is the frontline armed drone for the U.S. Air Force. Designed to be a follow-up aircraft to the earlier MQ-1 Predator, the Reaper can carry more ordnance which allows it to truly fulfill the “hunter” part of being a hunter-killer drone. While the Predator could only carry two Hellfire missiles or small bombs, Reapers can carry double the amount of Hellfires and bombs of up to the 500lb class.
The follow on to the Reaper, the jet-powered General Dynamics Avenger promised to have even more endurance and ordnance, being able to carry even 1000lb bombs. A limited number of Avengers were acquired by the Air Force for testing, but as they didn’t represent a significant upgrade in survivability in contested airspace, they were not adopted as a proper follow-on. As such, the Reaper remains the primary hunter-killer drone used by American forces.
Long-Range Surveillance: RQ-4/MQ-4 Global Hawk
A surprisingly old drone, first fielded in 1998, the Global Hawk continues to be a leader in the high-altitude long endurance (HALE) UAV field through continuous upgrades. These have included Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars, upgraded gimballed sensors, and others. As the RQ-4 fulfills a similar role in strategic reconnaissance and intelligence gathering to the U-2, not much information is available about its contribution to current military efforts.
But as the type continues to be procured and upgraded, it’s fair to say that the Global Hawk-class of UAVs is still the world’s best. Global Hawks have also proven their reliability countless times during the last two decades, and as reliability is a key trait for HALE UAVs, the Global Hawk’s record in that space makes it a world leader.
Converted Conventional Aircraft: Unmanned EA-18 Growler
Converted conventional aircraft have long been used as drones, but primarily in the target role. The recent flight test of unmanned EA-18 Growlers, however, show incredible potential, as the Electronic Warfare (EW) and Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD/DEAD) missions are incredibly hazardous as they often require flying directly at or in close proximity to enemy air defenses.
The US Navy’s conversion of such aircraft into drones could prove to be incredibly deadly, albeit without some of the cost benefits and aerodynamic benefits of a purpose-designed drone. However, the unmanned Growlers are not featured complete for service yet, as the aircraft were still actually manned for landing and takeoff during the much-publicized February 2020 test. Regardless, the “unmanned” Growler presents one of the most technologically mature “unmanned” combat wingman type aircraft in development today.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national security issues.
Image: Northrop Grumman.