Predators, Reapers Kept Persistent Watch as ISIS Lost Raqqa

An MQ-9 Reaper prepares to take off on June 23 in southwest Asia, marking the first time a Block 5 Reaper flew in combat. Air Force photo by SrA. Damon Kasberg.

Air Force MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers flew more than 44,000 hours and were responsible for one-fifth of all coalition airstrikes as part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces liberation of Raqqa, Syria, from ISIS.

The MQ-1 and MQ-9 operations over the city, which ISIS once touted as the capital of its caliphate, included close air support, tactical reconnaissance, over watch, and “buddy lasing”—the guidance of munitions fired from other aircraft, according to a 432nd Wing roundup of remotely piloted aircraft operations in the offensive.

“What our aircraft brought that was unique to the fight was persistence,” said Lt. Col. Nicholas, a squadron commander assigned to the 432nd Wing, in the release. (The Air Force does not release the full names of RPA crews involved in combat operations.) “We were over the city around the clock and that allowed us to have detailed knowledge of where the friendly forces were as they progressed.”

The dense, urban terrain of Raqqa was difficult for crews, and ISIS fighters were “trying to blend in,” SrA Chandler, a sensor operator with the 432nd Wing, said in the release.

Crews regularly saw civilians fleeing the city and watched US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces move deeper in the city before it was liberated in October.

During the offensive, coalition aircraft released some of the highest bomb totals of the entire air war against ISIS. In August alone, US and coalition aircraft released 5,075 weapons, the largest single month total since Operation Inherent Resolve began in August 2014, according to Air Forces Central Command. RPAs conducted about 20 percent of the coalition’s overall strike effort during the liberation of Raqqa.