Warplanes: Raven Romps


February22, 2007: The U.S. Department of Defense is buying another $53 million worth of RQ-11 Raven UAVs ( unmanned aerial vehicles). The Raven is not as well-known as other UAVs in service, like the Predator, but it is arguably one of the most important in service. The Raven weighs less than five pounds, and costs $25,000 each. Developed by the Army, it recently was adopted by the Marine Corps as well, which discarded a similar UAV known as Dragon Eye, made by the same company as the Raven.

The Army currently has some 1,300 RQ-11A Ravens, with another 2000 on order. Each system consists of three UAVs and ground-control equipment, usually used by an infantry company commander. This means that each infantry battalion will have at least nine such UAVs available. This is a significant reconnaissance force for infantry units that, a decade ago, were dependent on separate army aviation battalions, or the air force, for air reconnaissance. Now front line infantry commanders have their own air force, and this is revolutionary.

The Raven is very easy to launch. One can simply throw them or one can use a hand-held bungee cord. The battery-powered UAVs are also very quiet. This makes them practically invulnerable at night. They can fly as high as 1,000 feet. Their small size (about 3.5 feet by 4.25 feet) makes them a very difficult target to hit with small arms fire, at any range.

What do these small UAVs, as well as micro-UAVs like the Wasp, mean in terms of tactics? In one sense, they give American troops in front-line units their own intelligence-gathering assets. A Raven or Wasp flying at 1,000 feet above the ground is like a nearly-invulnerable point man with the ability to see in the dark. This means fewer casualties, not only among the main force, but also because there is no need to send a soldier or Marine to walk point when you can send a UAV a couple of kilometers ahead. Raven UAVs are also used to keep an eye on suspicious buildings, to help units on patrol avoid roadside IEDs by scouting ahead, or to catch insurgents in the open as they try to set up an IED.

Trying to take a Raven out is like trying to shoot a pigeon, only this is a pigeon that can dodge fire. Often the attempts to shoot it down will not only betray the position of the people doing the shooting, as well as providing proof of hostile intent. The result is that a bunch of insurgents can be taken out, and that is accomplished without any friendly casualties.

The Army is also planning to acquire the upgraded Raven B, a heavier version that can carry a laser designator. This makes the Raven a much more dangerous weapon. The addition of a laser designators means that troops on patrol in Iraq of Afghanistan now can just help target supporting fire from a helicopter or fighter overhead. With the Army buying at least 1000 systems of the new Raven B alone, and the Marines also looking into it as well. Small UAVs will be part of the American arsenal for a long time- Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)


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