Warplanes: The Army Does It Differently


December 24, 2010:  The U.S. Army is now receiving UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) similar to those used by the air force, but flown under different conditions, by a quite different type of crew. While air force Predators and Reapers are flown by officers, assisted by sergeants operating sensors, the army operators are mostly sergeants, with some warrant officers. The air force operators control their UAVs via satellite link from a base in the United States. Only the ground crews go overseas. But army operators and ground crews not only go overseas, but are assigned to a specific brigade, which they are a part of. That makes a big difference. When an army UAV operator provides overhead surveillance for troops, he often knows some of them. Even if he doesn't know them personally, he knows they are part of his brigade, and if anything goes very right, or wrong, he might receive a personal visit from those involved. With the air force operators, it's a job. With the army operators, it's personal. For this reason, the army has refused air force calls for all heavy (over one ton) UAVs to be pooled. The air force cannot understand the personal angle, but for the army and marines it's essential. Moreover, when there's a victory out there because of UAVs, it is for all to see in the UAV operations center, on big, flat screen displays. The response among the UAV operators is emotional, just as it is, in a more somber way, if there are problems down there.

The air force pilots, who are nearly all pilots of manned aircraft, have one advantage over their army counterparts; they have experience flying an aircraft in bad weather. This is the one skill army UAV operators have the hardest time acquiring. The army is tweaking its UAV simulators to more accurately depict these problems, as well as the frequent need to use crude, improvised air strips for take offs and landings. Even air force pilots would have trouble with this, but it's very rare for air force UAVs to be using such crude facilities.

This year, army brigades overseas began receiving the new 1,500 kg MQ-1C UAV. Called Gray Eagle, until recently it was informally known as the Sky Warrior. This UAV will supplement, and eventually replace the current 159 kg/350 pound Shadow 200s. These aircraft carry day and night cameras, and laser designators, but usually no weapons. Most of the new army heavy UAVs delivered over the next five years will be missile carrying MQ-1Cs. By 2015, the army will have over 500 MQ-1Cs.

The Gray Eagle joins an already vast UAV fleet. The U.S. Army currently has 87 RQ-7 Shadow UAV systems (with several UAVs each), six MQ-5 Hunter systems, nine MQ-1Cs, 12 Sky Warrior Alphas, over 4,000 Ravens (in 1,300 systems, assigned to infantry companies, convoys and base defense) and 16 RQ-18 MAV (helicopter type) systems. Army UAVs now spend over 25,000 hours a month in the air. It took army UAVs 13 years to achieve their first 100,000 air hours, and 8.5 years to get their next 900,000 hours.

The army needs as many MQ-1Cs as it can get. To keep one MQ-1C in the air, often necessary to maintain constant surveillance on something of interest, or to assist a ground unit under constant threat, requires several MQ-1Cs. By the end of next year, the manufacturers will be turning out two MQ-1Cs a month.

The first MQ-1C aviation company was formed a year ago. An MQ-1C aviation company has 115 troops, 12 MQ-1Cs and five ground stations. The first MQ-1C company was assigned to the U.S. Army 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment), which belongs to SOCOM. The army plans to eventually equip each combat brigade with a MQ-1C company, and establish 45 of these companies. The new SOCOM MQ-1C unit will support special operations (Special Forces, SEALs, rangers, NATO commandos) in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, the MQ-1C achieved Quick Reaction Capability 2, meaning that it can carry Hellfire missiles.

The MQ-1C carries 135.4 kg/300 pounds of sensors internally, and up to 227.3 kg/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. SMQ-1C has a wingspan 18 meters/56 feet and is 9 meters/28 feet long. The MQ-1C can land and take off automatically, and carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator), or a dozen smaller 70mm guided missiles. Each MQ-1C costs about $10 million. The MQ-1C has automated takeoff and landing software, and is equipped with a full array of electronics (target designators, and digital communications so troops on the ground can see what the UAV sees.)

The original MQ-1 Predator is a one ton aircraft that is 8.7 meters/27 feet long with a wingspan of 15.8 meters/49 feet. It has two hard points, which usually carry one (47 kg/107 pound) Hellfire each. Max speed of the Predator is 215 kilometers an hour, max cruising speed is 160 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 8,000 meters/25,000 feet. Typical sorties are 12-20 hours each.

As its model number (MQ-1C) indicates, this UAV is a Predator (MQ-1) replacement. The U.S. Air Force had planned to replace its MQ-1s with MQ-1Cs, but later decided to buy only larger Reapers. The MQ-1C was developed by the army. The third member of the Predator family is the MQ-9 Reaper. This is a 4.7 ton, 11 meter/36 foot long aircraft with a 20 meter/66 foot wingspan that looks like the MQ-1. It has six hard points, and can carry about a ton (2,400 pounds) of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, or two 227 kg/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 in ground support missions.