Because the air force has most of the larger (over 100 kg/220 pounds each) UAVs and a policy of training UAV pilots and using them on UAVs for three years before letting them go back to manned aircraft, they have a huge demand. Running the software off a remote server (“the cloud”) makes it easier to upgrade the software and means an unlimited number of trainees can be handled. Trained UAV pilots are used to monitor the use of the training UAVs, mainly to prevent trainees from flying the UAV into the ground. The big draw of all this is that it costs over 97 percent less to use a simulator than to fly an actual UAV. There will be some flying of the actual UAV by trainees, but mainly to test them make sure they did acquire all the needed skills on the simulators.
The U.S. Air Force has 175 Predators (and is not buying any more) and 40 of the larger Reaper (and plans to buy several hundred more). Then there is the much larger (business jet size) strategic UAV. Currently this consists of various models of the Global Hawk, with 14 in service and over fifty planned or on order by the air force and navy. The U.S. Army has 450 Shadow 200 UAVs. The U.S. Marine Corps also has 52 Shadow 200s. The army has 20 of the 1990s era Hunter UAVs, which are being retired next year and are being replaced by the new Grey Eagle. There are 40 of these in service and another 110 on order. Then there are the helicopter UAVs, but only the navy has found these essential and over 60 Fire Scouts are on order by the navy. The CIA has a force of about 30 Predator and Reaper UAVs and wants another ten Reapers.
It was the CIA that pioneered the use of Hellfire missiles on UAVs and doesn’t say much about what it does with their robotic air force. That’s because the CIA UAVs often operate in areas where the U.S. won’t admit there are American UAVs or wants to be discreet (like Pakistan).
The MQ-1C Grey Eagle 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 career 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.
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.
Even though the American war in Iraq is over and the one in Afghanistan is winding down, the U.S. still has a growing UAV fleet. The most numerous UAVs are the micros (under 5 kg/11 pounds), like the Raven. There are several thousand of these still in service and they are very popular with ground troops. The Raven’s take a beating and often don’t survive more than a few months of combat. Most micros are Ravens but there are nearly a thousand other models. There are simulators for the Raven but the system is cheap enough to do a lot of on-the-job-training with actual aircraft.