Warplanes: Predator Attrition



December 20, 2007:  Last week, an a MQ-1 Predator crashed in Iraq, the eighth one this year. This is noteworthy, and not just because of the fact that this is the third since November 28. It shows that the UAVs, while very valuable, are more prone to crashing than manned aircraft. This is a serious matter. The Air Force has a total of 97 on inventory – so each Predator crash (or loss due to combat) means that the entire force has suffered a loss of one percent. In essence, the Predator force is proving that it is a bit more fragile than it would seem.



Is one percent a lot? The answer is yes, it can be, especially when the losses mount up. The Air Force had lost as many as 53 Predators out of 139 delivered as of this past March, losses of about 40 percent. Keep in mind that 20 percent heavy bomber  losses in the second Schweinfurt Raid of 1943, forced the United States Air Force to curtail similar missions for five months – during the height of World War II.



The Predator force has proven to be an effective anti-terrorist weapon, often using Hellfire missiles to take out gunmen and IED planters – but also to kill high-ranking terrorists in strikes like the one lunched in 2002. In essence, it was a modification to the Israeli approach of using Hellfires, albeit from AH-64 Apache gunships.



The result of these missions is that the Predators are flying a lot of missions. And as the mission rate increases, these aircraft will be stretched further and further. In recent months, Predators have flown over 175 sorties a month, each averaging over 18 hours. This averages at just under six sorties a day.



The Air Force has contracts for 250 Predators. The Army is getting another 120 modified versions, for a total of 370. This will not include those operated by other government agencies. Still, the loss rate is going to be a matter of concern. If it does not improve, the Predator force could become largely ineffective. – Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)