Warplanes: The U.S. Army Air Force Quietly Reappears

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March 8, 2009: Although the U.S. Army doesn't officially receive its first Sky Warrior MQ-1C UAVs until this month, they sent two of the prototypes to Iraq last year for testing. The first flight, lasting 10.5 hours, was on April 18th. The MQ-1Cs are slightly larger Predators, and are being used for missions formerly performed by Shadow 200, and other large army UAVs. The big difference is that Sky Warrior can carry weapons (like Hellfire missiles.) But the army is already using missile firing, fixed wing combat aircraft, something it has not been able to do for many decades (since the U.S. Air Force was created out of the old U.S. Army Air Force in the late 1940s). The air force has accepted, for the moment, that unmanned aircraft are not the sole preserve of the air force, and the army is taking that and building a new air force for itself.  

This was done quietly, when the army bought twenty Predator type UAVs (called Sky Warrior Alpha) from the same firm that manufactures the Predator and Sky Warrior. These have been in Iraq for nearly two years, mainly for counter-IED work with Task Force Odin. The one ton Sky Warrior Alpha can carry 450 pounds of sensors and 300 pounds of weapons, and one was recently used to fire a Hellfire missile in combat for the first time. Sky Warrior Alpha is, officially, the I-Gnat ER, which is based on a predecessor design of the Predator, the Gnat-750, and an improved model, the I-Gnat (which has been in use since 1989). The I-Gnat ER/ Sky Warrior Alpha looks like a Predator, but isn't. In terms of design and capabilities, they are cousins.

 The MQ-1C Sky Warrior weighs 1.5 tons, carries 300 pounds of sensors internally, and up to 500 pounds of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of up to 36 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. Sky Warrior has a wingspan 56 feet and is 28 feet long. The Sky Warrior can land and take off automatically, and carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator). The original MQ-1 Predator is a one ton aircraft that is 27 feet long with a wingspan of 49 feet. It has two hard points, which usually carry one (107 pound) Hellfire each. Each hard point can also carry a Stinger air-to-air missile. Max speed of the Predator is 215 kilometers an hour, max cruising speed is 160 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 25,000 feet. Typical sorties are 12-20 hours each.   A Sky Warrior company has 115 troops, 12 Sky Warrior UAVs and five ground stations.

As its model number (MQ-1C) indicates, Sky Warrior is a Predator (MQ-1) replacement. The U.S. Air Force plans to replace its MQ-1s with MQ-1Cs. Sky Warrior began mass production this year, and the U.S. Army (which paid for development) wants over 500 initially. So far, the attrition rate of Predators has been over five percent a year. Unless that can be brought down, few Predators will last more than a decade and the MQ-1C will replace it gradually. Most of the losses are due to mechanical, electronic, software or operator failure. Never have so many UAVs been used so extensively, and intensively, in combat. So it's a learning experience in a new environment. The attrition rate is coming down, but not rapidly.

The army and air force are going to jointly manage the Predator force, or at least the MQ-1Cs. This will cause some unexpected scuffles, as many air force generals believe the army should not have the MQ-1C, or at least not use them with weapons. That has already caused some sparks to fly in the Pentagon, but a recent purge and reshuffle of the senior air force leadership, by the Secretary of Defense, makes it appear that the army will be left alone to build its new robotic air force. Back in the 1950s, after a decade of bickering, the Department of Defense ordered the army to stick with helicopters, while the air force got all the fixed wing aircraft. But UAVs have no pilots in them and the army does not consider them part of the half century old deal.

 There is a third member of the Predator family, that will stay just with the air force. The MQ-9 Reaper is a 4.7 ton, 36 foot long aircraft with a 66 foot wingspan that looks like the MQ-1. It has six hard points, and can carry 1,500 pounds of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, or two 500 pound smart bombs (laser or GPS guided.) Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance is 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s.

 


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