Warplanes: The Last Predator

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September 27, 2009: Next year, the U.S. Air Force will buy its last MQ-1 Predator UAV. After that, the MQ-9 Reaper will be the primary medium UAV for the air force. The main reason is payload capacity. The Predator can only carry 450 pounds (204 kilograms) internally (and 300 pounds externally), compared to 800 pounds (364 kilograms) internally and 3,000 pounds (1.36 tons) externally for the Reaper. The Reaper can also fly faster (cruise speed of 300 kilometers an hour, versus 160 for the Reaper). Max takeoff weight for the Predator is one ton, compared to 4.7 tons for the Reaper.  Predators will continue to be built for a few years, to take care of foreign orders.

While the air force describes the Reaper as combat aircraft (a light bomber), and the Predator a reconnaissance aircraft, the reality is that both aircraft spend over 95 percent of their time performing reconnaissance and electronic warfare missions. And these include more than just flying around with cameras pointed at the ground. The electronic recon operations involve patrolling areas where the enemy might be using walkie talkies or longer range radios. The Reaper is big enough to carry sensors that can pick up all sorts of transmissions. Moreover, the external carrying capacity of the Reaper makes it possible to carry electronic warfare pods (these look like bombs). The big advantage of the Reaper and Predator is that they can carry cameras and other sensors, and keep patrolling an area for twelve hours or more per sortie. A Reaper, carrying about the same load of sensors a Predator would on a twelve hour mission, can stay out there twice as long.

The air force currently owns 137 MQ-1s and 35 MQ-9s. Another 70 MQ-1s are on order, and nearly as many MQ-9s. In a few years, the air force will have more Reapers than Predators. Last year, these UAVs flew about 151,000 hours over Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. So far in this year (which ends on September 30) they have flown over 165,000 hours. It took 12 years of service (1995-2007, including development) for the MQ-1 Predator to reach the first 250,000 hours. It took another two years (2007-2009) to fly an additional 250,000 hours (500,000 total). The air force anticipates only 13 months to reach another 250,000 hour milestone (around Spring 2010).

There are about a hundred Predators in service, and they are averaging about 200 flight hours a month. That's over three times as much air time as jet fighters get. Predators fly this is misleading. These UAVs fly 36 CAPs each day, although , each CAP may consist of multiple missions. a day over Iraq and Afghanistan.

Predators are mainly reconnaissance aircraft, but ones that are capable of carrying out a relatively new airborne mission; surveillance (keeping an eye on one patch of ground for an extended period). Surveillance missions tie up a lot of airborne hours, but yield big results on the ground, where lots of enemy activity can be observed (especially at night). The army and marines have developed new tactics to take advantage of these new reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities. As more Predators become available, the ground troops put them right to work. So far, too many Predators are not enough.

While the Predator was a reconnaissance aircraft that could carry weapons (two Hellfire missiles, each weighing a hundred pounds), the Reaper was designed as a combat aircraft that also does reconnaissance. The Reaper can carry over a ton of GPS or laser guided bombs, as well as the 250 pound SDB, or Hellfire missiles. The Predators cost about $4.5 million each, while the Reaper goes for about $11.2 million (although that can go a lot higher depending on what kind of sensors you install).

The Reaper weighs about four times as much as a Predator, and carries sensors equal to those found in targeting pods like the Sniper XL or Litening, and flies at the same 20,000 foot altitude of most fighters using those pods. This makes the Reaper immune to most ground fire, and capable of seeing, and attacking, anything down there. All at one tenth of the price of a manned fighter aircraft. The air force will stop buying the MQ-1 as of next year, and will switch over to the Reaper.

The MQ-1C Sky Warrior is a Predator (MQ-1) replacement (or upgrade, if you wish), and most are being bought by the U.S. Army. The MQ-1C 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.   An army Sky Warrior company has 115 troops, 12 Sky Warrior UAVs and five ground stations.

 


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