May 1, 2020:
For over a decade Russia has been trying to create equivalents of the most famous American UAVs; Predator, Reaper and Avenger. All these UAVs have another thing in common, they were all developed and are manufactured the same firm; General Atomics. The Russian equivalents of these UAVs are the one ton Inokhodets, the five ton Altair/Altius-M and the 15 ton jet-powered Okhotnik (Hunter).
The Inokhodets have been flying for several years but the flight testing phase of development is still not over. This indicates some problems getting the Predator clone to work properly. The first version of the Russian Reaper-type UAV, the Altair, flew in 2016. That design needed a lot of changes that produced the six ton, twin-engine Altius-M. Russia appears more interested in its version of Reaper than its earlier Predator-type aircraft.
Russia decided it needed its own Predator and Reaper UAVs about a decade ago. At that point, the two originals had established impressive records. By 2011 the U.S. Air Force had decided to replace its MQ-1 Predators with MQ-9 Reapers. At that point, new Reapers cost about $6.2 million each. The price more than doubled, as sensors, fire control and communications gear were added. This is typical with combat aircraft, and that's what the air force considers the Reaper.
At the time the air force had over 60 Reapers in service. The air force wanted to buy another 250 Reapers before starting to replace MQ-9 with the MQ-X. Meanwhile, the last air force Predator was built in 2010. At that time the total air force fleet of Reapers and Predators consisted of nearly 250 UAVs. By 2020, the army and air force planned to have over a thousand of these large, armed, UAVs. That did not happen because most American troops were gone from Iraq and Afghanistan by 2014 and there was less demand for these UAVs and less procurement cash to pay for them.
Up until 2011 about 20 percent of the 500 air force and CIA (a major operator of UAVs over Pakistan, and other places) Predators and Reapers built or on order had been lost. But the troops couldn't get enough of this aircraft overhead, and in 2011 Predators and Reapers spent over 400,000 hours in the air over Iraq and (mostly) Afghanistan. That's compared to 300,000 hours in 2010, 185,000 hours in 2009 and 151,000 hours in 2008. It took 12 years of service (1995-2007, including development) for the Predator to reach its first 250,000 hours. It took another two years (2007-2009) to fly an additional 250,000 hours (500,000 total). It took less than a year to reach another 250,000 hour milestone (Spring 2010).
The Predator evolved into a family of three aircraft. The original is a one ton aircraft that is 8.7 meters (27 feet) long with a wingspan of 15.8 meters (49 feet). It has a hard point under each wing, which usually carry one (47 kg/107 pound) Hellfire each. Each hardpoint can also carry a Stinger air-to-air missile. Max speed of the Predator is 215 kilometers an hour, max cruising speed is 160 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 8,000 m (25,000 feet). Typical sorties are 12-20 hours each.
In contrast, the Reaper is a 4.7 ton, 11.6 meters (36 foot) long aircraft with a 21.3 meters (66 foot) wingspan that looks like a larger Predator. It has six hardpoints 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, 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 on many missions.
The third Predator variation is the U.S. Army MQ-1C Gray Eagle. This one is a slightly larger Predator that weighs 1.5 tons, carries 136 kg (300 pounds) of sensors internally, and up to 227 kg of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of up to 36 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. Gray Eagle has a wingspan of 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). MQ-1C initially cost $8-25 million each in 2011, depending on the sensor package.
About the same time MQ-1C showed up, China was trying to export UAVs nearly identical to the Predator, but about 20 percent lighter. China eventually succeeded, big time, mainly because they had no restrictions on who they would sell to and provided their own version of the Hellfire missile.
The MQ-9 replacement, MQ-X, never got out of the design stage because budget cuts and improved sensors (multiple cameras on one aircraft) forced the air force to just "evolve" the MQ-9. That eventually meant adding electronic warfare and missile defense equipment so it could survive in areas where the enemy has better anti-aircraft weapons. There is also a need for better flight control software, and improved ability to handle cold weather operations (as in places like Afghanistan), where wing icing is a constant problem.
The air force worked hard to improve the reliability of its UAVs, and reduce the loss rate (an accident causing destruction, or at least a million dollars of damage), per 100,000 flight hours. As of 2010 the rate for its MQ-1 Predators was down to about 7. Although this is twice the rate of manned fighter aircraft (like the F-15 or F-16), and five times the rate of the old, but very reliable, B-52, it was about the same rate as single-engine private aircraft (8.2). Within five years the Predator loss rate was under 4 per 100,000 hours and continued to decline.
In 2008 the loss rate for the 1.1 ton MQ-1 was 30 per 100,000 hours. The 4.7 ton MQ-9 Reaper had a loss rate of about 15 in 2010, after four years in service. The MQ-9 made its first flight in 2001. The Predator has been in action since the late 1990s. The design and operation of the MQ-9 learned much from the experience of the MQ-1.
Unmanned aircraft have always had a much higher loss rate, which is largely the result of not having a pilot on board, and not doing all that could be done to compensate for that. Older model UAVs had much higher rates. The 1980s era RQ-2A Pioneer had an annual rate of up to 363 per 100,000 hours. Despite that, the RQ-2 proved very useful during the 1991 Gulf war.
Finally, there is the General Atomics large UAV that did not see wide acceptance. The development of the jet-propelled Avenger began after September 11, 2001. The first flight was supposed to have been in 2007 but technical problems kept coming up. Apparently it was worth the wait, as the U.S. Navy was impressed and particularly interested in using Avenger to replace the soon-to-be-retired EA-6Bs in their most dangerous attack missions. The air force liked the ability to arm Avenger with a smart bomb, including the 900 kg (2,000 pound) GBU-34 penetrator version.
Avenger looked like a larger jet-powered version of the five ton Reaper. Avenger is 13.2 meters (41 feet) long, with a 20.1 meter (66 foot) wingspan, 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 an internal bomb bay holding about a ton of weapons, sensors, or additional fuel to provide another two hours of flying time (in addition to the standard 20 hours endurance). The 4,800 pound thrust engine is designed to minimize the heat signature that sensors can pick up. Total payload is 1.36 tons (3,000 pounds) and total weight of the aircraft is nine tons. Cruising speed is 740 kilometers an hour. The Avenger is designed to fly high (up to 20,000 meters/60,000 feet) and cross oceans. Avenger took its first flight in early 2009. Until 2009 the Avenger didn't officially exist and was a "black" (secret) program. Avenger is, like Reaper, a combat UAV that will often carry weapons as well as sensors. Each Avenger costs about $15 million.
All this attention to stealth should be no surprise. 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 its internal bomb bay, the Avenger was expected to be used primarily to carry ground surveillance radar, which could be mounted on the bottom of the aircraft in an aerodynamically smooth enclosure.
The U.S. Navy was interested in Avenger since the beginning of development. Thus the Avenger wings can be built to fold for use on carriers and have a tailhook needed for carrier landings. The Avenger uses landing gear from the F-5, an aircraft of the same weight class. The naval version came to be called the Sea Avenger. The navy did not buy Avenger and turned to new designs.
The navy, and several air forces, also considered using 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 Avenger to operate (takeoff and land) from a carrier before any of the other contenders (mainly the 19 ton X-47). The Avenger weighs less than half as much and has an exemplary track record.
In 2011 the U.S. Air Force decided to take a shortcut in developing its next-generation tactical reconnaissance UAV (MQ-X) and simply adopt a beefed-up version of the existing Avenger ("Predator C"). This jet-powered aircraft was developed privately by General Atomics as its candidate for MQ-X. The air force bought one Avenger and sent it to Afghanistan. Several years of Avenger test flights were encouraging enough for the air force to adopt Avenger as the base design for MQ-X. This was supposed to lead to Avenger B which would probably be a little larger and more expensive than the original. The air force never revealed their wish list of changes for Avenger B and air force interest did not last as the air force decided to put off jet-powered UAV development. That did not last and the air force turned to the establishment of warplane manufacturers (Lockheed and Northrop Grumman) for stealthy, jet-powered UAVs. In 2016 Avenger was used, apparently by the CIA, in Syria to drop pamphlets. But since then there has been little to report other than the 2018 Russian announcement that it was designing its own version of Avenger. At this point, Russia may be paying more attention to China than the United States. China is a major exporter of Predator and Reaper clones and is also working on jet-propelled models. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force is ending Reaper purchases at 337 aircraft because Reaper is considered too vulnerable in a conventional war. The Reaper replacement has not been selected yet. China continues to sell lots of Predator and Reaper clones, as are Israel, Russia and Turkey. Israel was the pioneer in this area and General Atomics was the only American firm to pay close attention and adopt Israeli UAV concepts. Israel has not yet put any jet-powered UAVs into service.