March 13, 2010: The U.S. Navy is moving ahead with its maritime patrol UAV program. The concept is simple. The new P-8A manned reconnaissance aircraft (based on the commercial B-737 airliner) would be equipped to control, and use data from, one or more nearby UAVs. The navy already has a navalized version of the RQ-4 Global Hawk on order for this. But the navy is also looking at a smaller, and cheaper UAV for this P-8A "wingman" role. The chief candidate is Predator C.
A year ago, the new, jet powered "Predator C" took its first flight. The navy is particularly interested in using Predator C to replace the soon-to-be-retired EA-6Bs in their most dangerous attack missions, and work with maritime patrol aircraft. The Predator C is 41 feet long, and built to be stealthy. The V shaped tail and smooth lines of the swept wing aircraft will make it difficult to detect by radar. There is a humpbacked structure on top of the aircraft, for the engine air intake. There is apparently an internal bomb bay to hold about a ton of weapons, or additional fuel to provide another two hours of flying time (in addition to the standard 20 hours endurance). The 4,800 pound thrust engines are designed to minimize the heat signature that sensors can pick up.
All this should be no surprise. The Avenger manufacturer, General Atomics, has a division devoted to building stealth features into aircraft. This includes the world's largest indoor radar cross section testing facility. Despite the bomb bay, the Predator C is expected to be used primarily to carry a ground surveillance radar, which could be mounted on the bottom of the aircraft in an aerodynamically smooth enclosure.
The U.S. Navy has been interested in Predator C since the beginning of development. Thus the Predator C wings can be built to fold, for use on carriers, and have a tail hook, needed for carrier landings. The Predator C, unlike the larger Global Hawk, could operate from carriers. The Predator C uses landing gear from the F-5, an aircraft of the same weight class.
Predator C appears to be a larger, jet powered version of the five ton Predator B. It was supposed to start flight tests by the end of 2006, but that was pushed into 2007, and then 2008. The Predator B costs about seven million dollars each, and the Predator C is expected to weigh twice as much, and cost three times as much. But that will still be about half the cost of a 13 ton Global Hawk.
The Predator C is expected to deliver about 85 percent of the performance of the Global Hawk, at about half the price. To compete with this, there is a "Global Hawk Lite" in development. The Predator C is designed to fly high (up to 60,000 feet) and cross oceans. Until recently, the Predator C didn't, officially, exist, and was a "black" (secret) program. No longer.
Most of the cost of these "strategic UAVs" is in the space satellite grade sensors. The MQ-4 Global Hawk, with minimal electronics, costs about $40 million. But you can easily add over $60 million worth of satellite grade gear to either a $20 million Predator C, or a $40 million Global Hawk. Thus Global Atomics is trying to come up with a lot of improved features (more reliable, easier to maintain, cheaper to run) for their Global Hawk competitor.
Avenger has other missions as well, one of them being shooting down ballistic missiles during the boost phase (initial launch, as it rockets straight up). The small, stealthy Avenger could prowl an area where the missile launchers are, then detect the heat of the take off, and launch a missile from its bomb bay, that would take the missile down.
The navy, and several air forces, are also looking at the Avenger as an ELINT (electronic intelligence) aircraft. The ability to carry a ton of sensors, and stay in the air for twenty hours per sortie, has a lot of appeal for an aircraft that is already stealthy, and doesn't carry a pilot. Moreover, the Avenger can perform ELINT missions entirely autonomously, making it more difficult to detect. General Atomics believes it can get the Predator C to operate (takeoff and land) from a carrier, before any of the other contenders (mainly the 19 ton X-47). The Predator C weighs less than half as much, and has an exemplary track record.
A P-8A could control one or more Predator Cs and RQ-4Ns, to constantly monitor a large are of land and ocean. The Predator Cs could use their stealth, and lack of people on board, to get closer to the enemy. The RQ-4Ns have persistence (able to stay in the air more than 24 hours per sortie) to keep a constant watch on an area. The entire ensemble of aircraft could be quickly shifted to other areas as the situation demanded. It's a new way to handle maritime reconnaissance, with satellite communications enabling the human operators on the P-8, or at any headquarters on the planet, to share the video, radar images and electronic data collected.