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Warplanes: The Future Arrives Early
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August 13, 2008: Air force commanders around the world are becoming believers in unmanned warplanes. There are many reasons, plus the impressive track record of armed UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Medium" UAVs (weighing from a few hundred pounds to a few tons) have been around for decades, and achieved an acceptable degree of reliability by the 1990s. Then came advances in electronics that provided excellent day and night cameras, and the ability to stream the video live to users anywhere on the planet. In the early 1980s, the hundred pound laser guided Hellfire missile entered service. By the 1990s, you could now mount a laser designator on one of these UAVs, along with the Hellfire, and in 2001, at the urging of a U.S. Air Force general, a Hellfire was launched from a Predator UAV for the first time. 

The Predator was a recently developed, one ton, UAV, created with the help of Israeli UAV designers. The Israelis had taken the lead in UAV development during the previous two decades, but the U.S. military was not inclined to buy from foreigners, especially since the air force wasn't keen on aircraft that did not require pilots. Then 911 came along, and the CIA sent some of the Predator's it already owned to Afghanistan, and was the first to use a UAV fired Hellfire in combat. Over the next seven years, as more Hellfire armed Predators got into combat, the Hellfire became more successful, and more popular with the troops on the ground.

At the same time the Predator first fired a Hellfire, the manufacturer realized what they had, and began developing a larger UAV, that could carry more weapons. The Predator could only carry two Hellfires. But the larger Predator, eventually to be called the Reaper, could carry a ton and a half of weapons. This would include GPS guided (JDAM) 500 pound bombs. This put the UAV in direct competition with fighter bombers (like the F-15, F-16 and F-18). This was anathema to the air force generals, and although the Reaper first flew in 2001, it didn't get into combat until last year. Reaper was an instant success, and the resistance within the air force began to melt.

In the last year, the. MQ-9 Reaper (or "Predator B") UAVs operating in Afghanistan, flew over 500 sorties, each averaging about eight hours. The Reaper has spent most of its time doing reconnaissance, but has also operated as it was designed, as a combat aircraft. While the Reaper can carry smart bombs the most frequently used weapon continues to be the Hellfire missile. Reaper is now showing up in Iraq as well. Reaper is also proving that new technology can do traditional ground support jobs better and cheaper. Consider that the Reaper costs about 80 percent less than a manned fighter-bomber. Sure, the more expensive jet can carry lots more bombs and come in low with cannon fire. But smart bombs make both of those capabilities largely irrelevant. Moreover, the Reaper uses more than 90 percent less fuel, and can stay in the air over a target three or four times longer than a jet fighter (even one that is using aerial refueling, it's the pilot that eventually wears out.) Moreover, the Reaper can use shifts of human sensor operators to keep an eye on what's happening below. Pilots in jets get fatigued from doing that kind of surveillance. 

Starting last year, the U.S. Air Force began expanding its Predator/Reaper fleet to some 300 aircraft (nearly a third of them Reapers). This will be accomplished in the next two years, and then an even larger expansion is expected. The ground troops are quite emphatic about wanting more armed UAVs, because the combination of persistent surveillance and precision weapons is extremely useful to the ground troops.

While the Predator was a reconnaissance aircraft that could carry weapons (two Hellfire missiles), the Reaper was designed as a combat aircraft that also does reconnaissance. The Reaper also carries sensors equal to those found in targeting pods like the Sniper XL or Litening, and flies at the same 20,000 foot altitude of most fighters using those pods. This makes the Reaper immune to most ground fire, and capable of seeing, and attacking, anything down there. All at one tenth of the price of a manned fighter aircraft. The air force expects to stop buying the Predator in three years, and switch over to the Reaper, and new designs still in development.

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