Warplanes: December 26, 2002


General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has, since 1995, produced 82 RQ-1A one ton Predator UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), aircraft that are flown by someone on the ground. The firm is building one Predator a month, and is switching over to the new Predator B. The U.S. Air Force has received 60 of the Predators made so far, with the CIA getting most of the rest. Italy has an order in for six, five of which will be assembled in Italy. The air force has also bought three of the B version so far.

In February, 2001, a Hellfire, laser guided missile, was first successfully test fired from a Predator. By the end of 2001, Predator A's fired over a dozen Hellfire missiles in Afghanistan. The Predator B (or RQ-1B) has been flying in the Balkans since April, 2001. This version can carry up to ten Hellfire missiles. The B version also has it's internal payload (of cameras and electronics) increased from 450 to 750 pounds. The B version will be able to carry a more powerful SAR radar, that can see details on the ground at night and through fog and smoke. SAR produces what looks like a crude black and white video of what it sees. The B version also has software that takes some of the workload off the pilot. One Predator mission usually requires several pilots, working in shifts, to keep things going. Like the A version, the B version requires an airfield (or road) only 600 meters long for takeoff or landing. The B version can also go as high as 45,000 feet, allowing it to get above bad weather.

Another innovation of the B model is the use of electronic warfare equipment. This could include defensive systems to protect Predators from attack. While the Predator, with its 49 foot wingspan, can be seen in clear weather, and shot down with anti-aircraft guns or missiles, it can also fly high enough to avoid gunfire. But from 20,000 feet, the videocam doesn't see as much detail. Electronic warfare gear can defeat many types of anti-aircraft missiles, and blind some radars. The electronic warfare equipment can also provide some defense against attack by warplanes, but not in clear weather during the day. For this situation, the Predator would need a fighter escort nearby. Actually, there's nothing to prevent sending in one or more Predators as part of your typical attack "package" of different types of aircraft. This would include electronic warfare and radar control (AWACS) aircraft as well as fighters. 

Another option being investigated is equipping the Predator with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. The U.S. Army has already equipped some of it's helicopters with Stinger missiles, so all the engineering work to transform a shoulder fired missile to one fired from an aircraft is already done. Army helicopters expect to use their Stingers to knock down other helicopters, as enemy fighters are rarely encountered over battlefields patrolled by the U.S. Air Force. But the air force is also thinking about putting 340 pound AIM-120 air to air missiles on Predator Bs. This missile can take down any aircraft currently in service. The major problem with the Predator in attacking other aircraft is that the human pilot, on the ground, cannot see much of what is around the Predator in the air. One could use an AWACS to keep an eye on the airspace around the Predator, and let the pilot know when look or when to fire an air-to-air missile.

Also, by 2004, the smaller (500 and 250 pound) JDAM and laser guided bombs will be available, and these can go on Predator B as well. 

When rigged just for reconnaissance, a Predator can stay aloft for 40 hours, and move along at up to 130 kilometers an hour. That 40 hours of flight time is what made the air force a believer. This is called "persistence" and it's something manned recon aircraft and satellites cannot deliver. Persistence makes an enormous difference on the battlefield, because it prevents the enemy from moving unobserved or setting up deceptions (as is often the case for reconnaissance aircraft and satellites.) The other innovation that made the Predator a must have recon aircraft was the satellite linked videocam. Both the satellite communications and videocam technology have been gradually improving over two decades. Both are now cheap and reliable enough to provide real time video for commanders. Once a general, or political leader, gets a taste of this, there's no going back. The only problem right now is that, while Predators cost three million dollars each, there are not a lot of them available. So losing them on the dangerous missions they often go on does hurt.

In the next five years, the air force will be flying a larger (eleven tons loaded) X-45 combat UAV. This is a faster (1,000 kilometers an hour) aircraft, but has a shorter endurance (three hours per sortie.) The X-45 can carry 3,000 pounds of weapons and is designed to do the attack missions the Predator is handling now. The X-45, however, will cost a lot more, about $15 million each.


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