Warplanes: Armed U.S. Army UAVs Overseas

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October 25, 2016: The U.S. Department of Defense has been allowed (by Congress) to shift $27 million around in its current budget to buy three MQ-1C UAVs to replace ones lost during two years of operations against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. Air Force has flown most of the missions against ISIL in Syria and Iraq but the army began sending MQ-1Cs in early 2015. The air force already had older MQ-1As there and these have flown about 20 percent of air force missions and for most of those missions the MQ-1A is armed with Hellfire missiles. On about a fifth of its missions in Syria and Iraq the MQ-1As use their missiles. The army has not reported how often the MQ-1Cs use their missiles but many of the MQ-1Cs fly surveillance missions while armed with missiles.

The army sends its MQ-1Cs over as part of a company size organization. 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. There was not enough money for that but there are enough MQ-1Cs to organize sufficient aviation companies for each combat brigade sent overseas as well as to train all combat brigades to get the most out of an MQ-1C company.

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 those troops. 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 MQ-1C Block 1 Gray Eagle 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 30 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.

A new, Block 2 version of Gray Eagle is entering service. The new version has a better engine, fifty percent more fuel capacity, over 75 percent more endurance (from 30 to 53 hours), and its payload increased by 50 percent from 372 kg (798 pounds) to 558 kg (1,227 pounds). The fuselage has been modified to handle the increased fuel load and has greater reliability and stability in the air. The additional internal space makes it easier to install a Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) that makes it possible to fly in airspace used by civilian manned aircraft.

 


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