Special Operations: Predator Cousin Joins SOCOM


August 1, 2010: SOCOM (Special Operations Command) is one of the first outfits to get the new U.S. Army MQ-1C UAV. The MQ-1C aviation company was formed ten months ago, with a few MQ-1Cs, 17 troops and 35 civilian contractors. At full strength, a MQ-1C aviation company has 115 troops, 12 MQ-1C UAVs and five ground stations. This MQ-1C company is part of the U.S. Army 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment), which belongs to SOCOM. The army plans to eventually equip each combat brigade with a MQ-1C company. The SOCOM MQ-1C unit will support special operations (Special Forces, SEALs, rangers, NATO commandos) in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, the MQ-1C achieved Quick Reaction Capability 2, meaning that it can carry Hellfire missiles.

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. SMQ-1C has a wingspan 18 meters/56 feet and is 9 meters/28 feet long. The MQ-1C can land and take off automatically, and carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator), or a dozen smaller 70mm guided missiles. 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, max cruising speed is 160 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 8,000 meters/25,000 feet. Typical sorties are 12-20 hours each.  

Currently, the army has about 200 of these larger UAVs, most of them 159 kg/350 pound Shadow 200s. These 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 will have over 500 of them. The army currently has thousands of much smaller micro-UAVs. The air force does not bother too much with these, as they fly too low to bother air force aircraft, and are not armed.

The army has been quietly building its new force of larger UAVs for a while. Four years ago, the army quietly bought twenty Predator type UAVs (called Sky Warrior Alpha) from the same firm that manufactures the Predator and Sky Warrior. 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, which wants at least 500 of them.

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.


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