Warplanes: Reaper Headed For China


May 3, 2011: The U.S. Air Force is planning to move much of its UAV force from Iraq and Afghanistan to East Asia over the next four years. Currently, the air force has 53 MQ-1As Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. But at least a dozen will be leaving Iraq this year, and more than that are expected to leave Afghanistan over the next three years. Despite the heavy use of these UAVs in Afghanistan right now, mainly to deal with roadside bombs, the feeling is that the Taliban has been hurt pretty bad, and some kind of negotiated deal will be made soon, to halt what is, in effect, an uprising by several Pushtun tribal groups, organized under the Taliban banner, and trying to regain control of the country. That has not worked out too well, and soon the air force will find itself with unneeded UAVs in Afghanistan.

The air force sees these larger UAVs, which also carry missiles, as the weapon of the future and wants to keep them in action. Then there is the competitive element. The CIA has a force of over a dozen Predators and Reapers, and was the first to arm these UAVs and use them to hunt down and kill terrorists. The U.S. Army is in the process of building a force of over 500 UAVs, most of them the Predator variant, the MQ-1C Grey Eagle. The CIA and army use their UAVs differently than the air force, which sees these aircraft as strategic reconnaissance tools, which can also carry missiles to promptly destroy newly found targets.

So the air force plans to move many, if not most, of its Reapers and Predators to watch China and North Korea. Others will go to assist anti-terror operations in Africa and Yemen. These areas are in need of the kind of "persistent" surveillance that only these types of UAVs can provide. The air force is also building more of the larger (12 ton) RQ-4 Global Hawk. But this is a high-flying bird that most often acts as a "satellite replacement."

The MQ-1Cs are slightly larger Predators, and are being used for missions formerly performed by older Shadow 200, and other large army UAVs. The big difference is that Grey Eagle can carry weapons (like Hellfire missiles.) Thus the army will be using missile firing, fixed wing combat aircraft, something it has not been able to do for over half a century (since the U.S. Air Force was created out of the old U.S. Army Air Force in the late 1940s). The air force has accepted, for the moment, that unmanned aircraft are not the sole preserve of the air force, and the army is taking that and building a new air force for itself. The army tried this once before, during the Vietnam war, and eventually lost their fixed wing combat aircraft. The air force may be hoping for a historical repeat here.

The air force is not happy about the army having a large force of armed UAVs. Many air force generals believe the army should not have the MQ-1C, or at least not use them with weapons. That has already caused some spats in the Pentagon over the issue, but a recent purge and reshuffle of the senior air force leadership, by the Secretary of Defense, makes it appear that the army will be left alone to build its new robotic air force. At least for the moment.

Back in the 1950s, after a decade of bickering, the Department of Defense ordered the army to stick with helicopters, while the air force got all the fixed wing aircraft. But UAVs have no pilots in them and the army does not consider them part of the half century old deal. So the army is again flying armed aircraft, in addition to the armed helicopters it has always had. The army argument is that these larger UAVs work better for them if they are under the direct control of combat brigades. The air force sees that as inefficient, and would prefer to have one large pool of larger UAVs, that could be deployed as needed. This difference of opinion reflects basic differences in how the army and air force deploy and use their combat forces. The army has found that a critical factor in battlefield success is teamwork among members of a unit, and subordinate units in a brigade. While the air force accepts this as a critical performance issue for their aircraft squadrons, they deem it irrelevant for army use of UAVs. Seeing army MQ-1Cs doing visual and electronic reconnaissance and firing missiles at ground targets, the air force sees itself losing control of missions it has dominated since its founding in 1948.

The army began receiving MQ-1Cs two years ago, and has over twenty of them already. Currently, the army has about 200 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 air force sees one advantage in the growing number of MQ-1Cs, less demand for air force MQ-1As and MQ-9s. That means the air force can take its UAVs to East Asia and make itself useful there.

The MQ-1C Grey Eagle weighs 1.5 tons, carries 136 kg/300 pounds of sensors internally, and up to 227 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. Grey Eagle has a wingspan 18 meters/56 feet and is 9 meters/28 feet long. The Grey Eagle can land and take off automatically, and carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator), or a dozen smaller 70mm guided missiles. MQ-1Cs cost $8 million each, but this will go down to $6 million as more are manufactured. A Grey Eagle company has 115 troops, 12 Grey Eagle UAVs and five ground stations. The army plans to equip each combat brigade with a Grey Eagle company. As its model number (MQ-1C) indicates, Grey Eagle is a Predator (MQ-1) replacement. The U.S. Air Force had planned to replace its MQ-1s with MQ-1Cs, but later choose to buy only larger Reapers. The Grey Eagle was developed by the army.

The original MQ-1A Predator is a one ton aircraft that is 8.9 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 8,100 meters/25,000 feet. Typical sorties are 12-20 hours each. The air force has stopped buying MQ-1As and plans to replace them all with MQ-9s, and a new UAV that is still in the design stage.

The third member of the Predator family is the MQ-9 Reaper. This is a 4.7 ton, 11.6 meter/36 foot long aircraft with a 21.3 meter/66 foot wingspan that looks like the MQ-1. It has six hard points, and can carry 682 kg/1,500 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 some functions of F-16s or A-10s.




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