July 1, 2012: The U.S. Army began moving platoons (each with four aircraft) of its new MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) to Afghanistan late last year. Two months ago it sent the first MQ-1C company to Afghanistan, where it has completed over 200 sorties. An MQ-1C aviation company has 115 troops, 12 MQ-1Cs, and five ground stations. The army has been adding a lot of new electronics to the MQ-1Cs and this has caused some reliability problems. This has lowered the rate of available (for flying) MQ-1Cs, but the army believes it will overcome all the software problems and that the MQ-1Cs that do get into the air are doing outstanding work at tracking and attacking the enemy.
In addition to the usual surveillance and attack chores, some MQ-1Cs are assigned to QRC (Quick Reaction Capability) platoons of four aircraft. These QRC units are kept in readiness, especially during large operations against the Taliban, to quickly get into the air and pursue new information (or fleeing Taliban believed to be leaders or other key personnel). With their night vision and SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar), the MQ-1Cs rarely lose anyone they spot on the ground. Since an MQ-1C can stay in the air over 20 hours at a time, they can work in shifts if they have to until hidden Taliban fugitives eventually come out again. This use of Gray Eagles has greatly increased the losses among the Taliban leadership.
The first MQ-1C aviation company was formed three years ago and was assigned to the U.S. Army 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment), which belongs to SOCOM (Special Operations Command). The army plans to eventually equip each combat brigade with an MQ-1C company and establish over three dozen of these companies.
The Gray Eagle is joining a large existing UAV fleet. At its peak two years ago the army had 87 RQ-7 Shadow UAV systems (with several UAVs each), six MQ-5 Hunter systems, nine MQ-1Cs, 12 Sky Warrior Alphas, over 4,000 Ravens (in 1,300 systems, assigned to infantry companies, convoys, and base defense), and 16 RQ-18 MAV (helicopter type) systems. Army UAVs spent over 25,000 hours a month in the air. It took army UAVs 13 years to achieve their first 100,000 air hours and 8.5 years to get their next 900,000 hours. With the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the reduction of forces in Afghanistan, many of the older UAVs are being retired.
The MQ-1C weighs 1.5 tons, carries 135.4 kg (300 pounds) of sensors internally, and up to 227.3 kg (500 pounds) of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of up to 36 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. MQ-1C has a wingspan of 18 meters (56 feet) and is 9 meters (28 feet) long. The MQ-1C can carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator), or a dozen smaller 70mm guided missiles. Each MQ-1C costs about $10 million. The army uses warrant officers as operators. The MQ-1C has automated takeoff and landing software and is equipped with a full array of electronics (target designators and digital communications so troops on the ground can see what the UAV sees).
The original MQ-1 Predator is a one ton aircraft that is 8.7 meters (27 feet) long with a wingspan of 15.8 meters (49 feet). It has two hard points, which usually carry one (47 kg/107 pound) Hellfire each. Max speed of the Predator is 215 kilometers an hour while max cruising speed is 160 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 8,000 meters (25,000 feet). Typical sorties are 12-20 hours each.
The 159 kg (350 pound) Shadow 200s carry day and night cameras and laser designators but usually no weapons. Most of the new army heavy UAVs delivered over the next five years will carry missiles, and by 2015, the army wants to have over 500 MQ-1Cs.
The army has been quietly building its new force of larger UAVs for a while. Six years ago the army quietly bought twenty Predator type UAVs (called Sky Warrior Alpha) from the same firm that manufactures the Predator and Gray Eagle. These were in Iraq for over two years, mainly for counter-IED work with Task Force Odin. The one ton Sky Warrior Alpha can carry 204.5 kg (450 pounds) of sensors and 134.5 kg (300 pounds) of weapons, and a few of them have fired Hellfire missiles. Sky Warrior Alpha is, officially, the I-Gnat ER, which is based on a predecessor design of the Predator, the Gnat-750, and an improved model, the I-Gnat (which has been in use since 1989). The I-Gnat ER/ Sky Warrior Alpha looks like a Predator but isn't. In terms of design and capabilities, they are cousins.
As its model number (MQ-1C) indicates, this UAV is a Predator (MQ-1) replacement. The U.S. Air Force had planned to replace its MQ-1s with MQ-1Cs but later decided to buy only larger Reapers. The MQ-1C was developed by the army. The third member of the Predator family is the MQ-9 Reaper. This is a 4.7 ton, 11 meter (36 foot) long aircraft with a 20 meter (66 foot) wingspan that looks like the MQ-1. It has six hard points and can carry about a ton (2,400 pounds) of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, or two 227 kg (500) pound smart bombs (laser or GPS guided). Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance is 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in ground support missions.