The U.S. Army recently began full rate production of its new MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAV. After eight years of development and field testing, the army is ordering as many production models as it believes it can afford. The current order is for 49, the last of them to be delivered by late 2015. The army already has 65 MQ-1Cs and, with the budget cuts and no major overseas commitments after the last major units are out of Afghanistan next year, the army is only planning on getting 152 MQ-1Cs along with 31 ground control stations.
The first MQ-1C aviation company was formed in 2009, and was assigned to the U.S. Army 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment), which belongs to SOCOM (Special Operations Command). MQ-1Cs were used in Iraq starting in 2010, as part of the final field testing. The army began sending platoons (each with four aircraft) of MQ-1Cs to Afghanistan in 2011, and more have followed.
The army originally planned to equip each combat brigade with an MQ-1C company (12 UAVs) and establish over three dozen of these companies. But the reduced force of MQ-1Cs means there will only be enough to give each combat brigade a MQ-1C platoon. Each combat brigade is now supposed to also have 35 mini-UAV systems (each with three UAVs, most of them two kilogram Raven but at least ten of these systems are to be slightly larger Pumas). That means that each combat brigade now has its own air force of over a hundred reconnaissance aircraft. Only a dozen will be the larger UAVs, in a UAV company that will probably have eight Shadow 200s and four MQ-1Cs.
The Gray Eagle was originally supposed to replace all the other large UAVs currently in army service. Most of these are the RQ-7 Shadow (over 300) and smaller numbers of MQ-5 Hunters, Sky Warrior Alpha, and RQ-18 MAV (helicopter type) systems. Many of the RQ-7s will now stay in service until they wear out. The 159 kg (350 pound) Shadow 200s carries day and night cameras and laser designators but usually no weapons and can stay in the air for about five hours, which is tiny compared to the MQ-1C, which weighs 1.5 tons, 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. MQ-1C has a wingspan of 18 meters (56 feet) and is 9 meters (28 feet) long. The MQ-1C can 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 army uses warrant officers as operators. 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 MQ-1C is based on the MQ-1 Predator, which is a one ton aircraft and can do most everything the Gray Eagle can, except carry larger sensors and more weapons. Faced with smaller budgets over the next decade, the U.S. Army has halted evaluation of new UAVs and is standardizing on four existing models (Gray Eagle, Shadow 2000, Raven, and Puma). While the MQ-1C is new, the other three were developed and purchased in large quantities over the last dozen years and will remain the primary army UAVs for the next 5-10 years.
The army currently has nearly 7,000 UAVs. Over 85 percent are micro-UAVs like the Raven and Puma. The army is proceeding to spend scarce cash on new sensors for existing UAVs and the old Shadow 200s have gotten other new components (engines, wings, and so on). Money problems mean the army will have to make the most of the few MQ-1Cs and RQ-7s it can buy and keep operational.