War profiteer of the month: General Atomics

A drone in flight. The background is a dusty sandy landscape.
A General Atomics Reaper drone in flight

General Atomics is an American company, formed in 1955, with headquarters in San Diego in California. In 2016 General Atomics ranked 46th on the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) list of the Top 100 arms-producing and military servicing companies. SIPRI estimated that the company made around $1.8bn worth of arms sales in 2016.

The company specialises in nuclear physics, as well as building remotely operated surveillance aircraft, missile defence rail gun systems, sensor systems, ground control stations, and training and support services.

The company is made up of a number of affiliated companies including:

  • General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI), a “leading manufacturer” of unmanned aircraft. GA-ASI builds the Predator UAV. GA-ASI is supported in the UK by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems UK Ltd.

  • General Atomics Systems Integration, LLC (GA-SI) “specializes as a full service solution to meet the persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) challenges facing domestic and allied nation security missions.”

  • Cotter Corporation is a mining and milling company producing uranium, vanadium, silver, copper and a range of other products.

  • Nuclear Fuels Corporation markets uranium produced by General Atomics mining operations.


Drones have allowed a huge expansion of targetted extrajudicial killings around the world, particularly by the US military and CIA in the wars following the 9/11 attacks – the CIA first used a Predator drone in a targetted killing in February 2002, in Afghanistan. Since 2001 the Predator and Reaper drones built by General Atomics have contributed significantly to this new type of warfare.

MQ-1 Predator

The MQ-1 Predator was originally designed in the 1990s as an unmanned surveillance aircraft, first used by the US military in 1995, and marked an era of drone combat. It was modified in 1999 to to be able to carry two Hellfire missiles, and has been used in a large number of US military operations since, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Somalia. Production of the Predator ended in October 2015, with the completion of an order from the Italian air force and the US deciding to “retire” the drone. The Predator has been sold to the United States Air Force, as well as the Italian, Turkish and Moroccan air forces.

MQ-9 Reaper

The Reaper was first flown in 2001, and is a larger and more powerful successor to the MQ-1 Predator – it can fly further, higher, for longer. As it was introduced, Michael Moseley, the US Airforce Chief of Staff said “We've moved from using UAVs primarily in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance roles before Operation Iraqi Freedom, to a true hunter-killer role with the Reaper.” Moseley said that the name “Reaper” was chosen by the US Air Force “as it captures the lethal nature of this new weapons system”.

The Reaper drone was first used in combat in 2007 in Afghanistan, with the Air Force Times reporting the MQ-9 was first used to kill on 28th October 2007. By 2016 the US Air Force were operating 195 Reapers, and plan to keep them in service until the 2030s. A Reaper drone can carry 4 Hellfire or Paveway missiles. Each drone costs $16m, and costs around $4,600 per hour of flight, significantly cheaper than traditional manned aircraft.

The Reaper is flown by the US Air Force, US Homeland Security, Australia, Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom, India and Belgium.

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