September 11, 2007: For the
first time, a U.S. Army UAV has been used to attack a ground target. On
September 8, a MQ-5A Hunter UAV used a Viper Strike smart bomb to kill two men
who were setting up a roadside bomb.
The Hunter lost out to the
Predator in the 1990s competition for a primary battlefield UAV. But the army
kept in storage the 61 it had, and put them back in action in time for the 1999
Kosovo operation. The need for UAVs in Iraq kept Hunter in action. So far, the
Hunters have flown over 50,000 hours, about half of them in combat, and most of
that in just the last year. Although considered inferior to the Predator, the
Hunter has turned into a popular UAV, and received a number of upgrades.
However, the Predator, with twice as many aircraft in service, has flown
250,000 hours so far.
The 1,600 pound MQ-5A can only
carry 200 pounds of sensors and weapons. It's an Israeli design, and the
Israelis have had great success with it. But the Predator is larger and has
longer endurance, and this has been a major advantage. Predator can also carry
hundred pound Hellfire missiles, while the Hunter can only carry two 44 pound
Viper Strike smart bombs.
A new version of the Hunter
has a more powerful engine and larger fuel capacity, giving it 40 hours
endurance, and a weight of 2,200 pounds. The new version is called MQ-5B, and
the army has ordered 18 of them, as well as upgrading nine MQ-5As to B
versions. The MQ-5B also has improved software, which enables it to take off
and land by itself. Endurance for Hunter has been increased several times over
the last few years, from the original eleven hours.
Viper Strike is a 36 inch long
unpowered glider. The 130mm diameter (with the wings folded) weapon weighs 44
pounds. Because the Viper Strike comes straight down, it is better suited for
urban warfare. Its warhead weighs only four pounds, and less than half of that
is explosives. This means less damage to nearby civilians, but still powerful
and accurate enough to destroy its target. A laser designator makes the Viper
Strike accurate enough to hit an automobile, or a foxhole.
The first test of Viper
Strike, launched from a UAV, took place four years ago. The delays, in getting
this weapon in the hands of the troops, were caused largely by disagreements
over technical and organizational issues. Not an uncommon event, although in
wartime it's often possible to cut through the crap.
For over half a century, the
army and air force have abided by the "Treaty of Key West," an agreement
president Eisenhower forced them to hammer out. The terms give the air force a
monopoly on fixed wing warplanes, and allows the army to only operate small,
two engine, fixed wing transports. However, the army can have all the
helicopters it can get. UAVs were not covered in the Key West agreement,
although UAVs existed in the 1950s. But armed UAVs were still only a distant
possibility back then. Now the air force wants to extend its fixed wing
monopoly to include armed UAVs. The army does not agree, and there's much
pressure in the Pentagon to revise the Key West treaty, and not allow the air
force to assume control over all the larger (over a hundred pounds) UAVs.