Warplanes: Convoy Escorts Go Robotic


November 22, 2005: In Iraq, one of the things that keeps American vehicles on the road are the robotic aircraft overhead. Dealing with the tactics of the terrorists in Iraq has been a game of adaptation and counter-adaptation. The terrorists have primarily relied on surprise attacks. Tactics used have included roadside bombs (usually an improvised explosive device configured from an artillery shell), car bombs, murder-suicide bombers (usually wearing an explosive vest), and snipers. This is because the terrorists have proven unable to stand up to American and Iraqi forces in straight-up fights.

To plant a successful IED, terrorists often have to scout out locations. This means finding out where convoys are going. Then, they need to plant the device, and set up an observation post to successfully detonate the device. Snipers need to locate a good firing position. Much of this can be easily observed from the air. When the terrorists lose the element of surprise, they tend to lose against the better-trained Iraqi and American forces in the resulting fight.

Convoy escort was done in the past with light aircraft that flew slowly. The first planes used for this were the American O-1 and O-2. Both of these are military versions of Cessna Model 305A and the Model 337 aircraft widely used by private pilots. The O-1 has a top speed of 243 kilometers per hour, and a range of 1,093 kilometers. The O-2 has a top speed of 331 kilometers per hour, and a range of 2,288 kilometers. The O-2 also had underwing pylons for rockets or 7.62-millimeter Gatling guns. These aircraft did well over Vietnam, and left service by the 1980s. Their successor, the OV-10 Bronco was retired in the 1990s.

Over Iraq, the Predator UAV has been doing an increasing amount of the convoy escort. The Predator is much better at this role. It cruises at 166 kilometers per hour, and has an endurance of up to 40 hours. Unlike the military Cessnas, it has infra-red and low-light sensors as well as a synthetic aperture radar, making it a very capable all-weather platform. The Predator has also been equipped with the Hellfire missile, which has a range of nine kilometers and a speed of 430 meters per second. The Hellfire, designed as an anti-tank missile with an 18-pound shaped charge or a twenty-pound blast-fragmentation warhead, has become a lethal anti-terrorist weapon in numerous strikes over the past four years. For instance, the Israeli Defense Forces have used Hellfires from Apache helicopters to kill dozens of terrorists, usually key leaders or technicians.

The Americans have gone further, turning the Predator UAV armed with Hellfire missiles into a lethal combination. What the Predator brings to the table is the ability to cruise over an area without having to worry about pilot fatigue (the pilot is at a ground-control station, where a team of observers take turns monitoring the vidcams). The Predator has a problem, though. The loss rate has been very high. As many as thirty out of the 90 that have been acquired have been lost. Most of have gone down because of equipment failure, although the rate of failure has been declining. Predators, though, have carried out a number of successful strikes, both from the United States Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency. The most notable is the 2002 strike by a CIA Predator that killed one of the planners of the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. The Predator has lived up to its name in four years of service during the war on terror, turning terrorists into prey. - Harold C. Hutchison ([email protected])




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