Warplanes: March 21, 2005

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The U.S. Air Force is creating Air National Guard squadrons to operate UAVs. The first three, to be in New York, Arizona and Texas, will operate the RQ-1A Predator. There are two interesting aspects to this. First, basing Predators in cold climates. Current Predators have trouble operating in cold weather, because of the icing on the wings. Predators are relatively small aircraft, and the lack of a human on board makes ice on the wings more difficult to deal with. The air force is determined to solve this problem, and basing Predators in New York (which has some pretty nasty Winters, particularly upstate, where most of the military bases are) is a clear sign of that. The second interesting angle to this is the use reserve troops for operating Predator. This was expected, because of the ability of the UAV to be flown by controllers based anywhere on the planet. Reservist Predator crews would be preferred for this, as the reservists could operate out of their home bases, and not be sent overseas. Moreover, Predator crews dont need as much training, to be effective, as crews that are actually in the air. The air force plans to expand its Predator force from the current three squadrons, to fifteen (including the three in the National Guard.) 

This expansion will take five years to complete. Creating the twelve additional squadrons will cost several billion dollars, and most new units will probably be equipped with the slightly larger B model of Predator. The CIA also operates a squadron (or more) of Predators, and pioneered the use of Hellfire missiles on them. The air force has since armed its Predators. What makes Predators so useful is the ability to stay over an area for 24 hours or more (persistence). If the Predator is armed, it can immediately attack whatever it has been looking for (usually a target that is trying hard not to be found.)

The first Predator unit (the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron) was established in 1995, the second in 1997 (the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron,) and the third (the 17th) in 2002. These three squadrons have had their UAVs in the air for some 90,000 hours so far. The one ton Predator is 27 feet long and has a 48 foot wingspan. The basic Predator unit has a ground control station, satellite dish, four aircraft and 82 airmen to service and operate the UAVs. There are three of these units (called "flights") in a Predator squadron.

 


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