The U.S. Air Force awarded two new contracts Monday for 24 Predator MQ-1B unmanned aircraft and four Predator B Reaper MQ-9 unmanned aircraft worth about $78.7 million to General Atomics, according to an Air Force press /br /Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has continually pressed the Air Force to increase its number of combat air patrols Predators fly over the Middle East in response to the need expressed by field commanders. Currently, the Air Force has about 125 Predators with hopes of growing that number to 300 by 2013 to meet the increased mission /br /Last year, the service deployed the MQ-9 Reaper for the first time in September 2007 to /br /It executed its first air strike in the Deh Rawood region of Afghanistan a month later. The MQ-9 is larger than the MQ-1 and can carry 3,000 pounds of munitions, including the Hellfire missile and conventional laser guided bombs, while the MQ-1 is limited to 500 /br /The contracts provided for the installation of Hellfire missile kits on the Predator MQ-1.

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