Warplanes: Mighty Mohave UAV


May 15, 2024: General Atomics, the American firm that developed and builds Predator and Reaper UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), has a new UAV, the three-ton Mohave. This is in development to supplement and eventually replace the current 4.8 ton MQ-9 Reaper that can carry 1.4 tons of bombs and missiles plus 360 kg of internal sensors and fire control systems. Mohave can carry 1.6 tons of bombs and missiles and was designed to use shorter, 152 meter, primitive runways for takeoffs and landings. The shorter runway only works when Mohave is not carrying a lot of external weapons. These hang from the wings and impose drag. When equipped just for surveillance, no weapons are carried and a shorter runway is needed. Mohave was designed with larger wings and more control surfaces so it can operate at low altitudes and use 7.62mm machine-gun pods for strafing. This is possible because the Mohave benefits from three decades of development and use since the MQ-1 Predator entered service in the 1990s for the CIA and later the air force. Only 300 Predators were built between 1995 and 2018, when the air force retired its MQ-1s, These UAVs continued to be used by other military and commercial operators.

The MQ-9 Reaper entered service in 2007, after a decade of development and its first flight in 2001. About 400 MQ-9s are expected to be put to use before Reapers are retired in the late 2030s. Mohave will continue in service into the 2040s if development and use go as planned. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated that UAVs like Predator and Mohave are as vulnerable as manned aircraft to air defenses. Predator and Mohave cost up to $40 million each and much more if high-end sensors are carried. Operations in Ukraine have shown that most surveillance and reconnaissance takes place using cheaper UAVs that operate closer to the ground. High altitude surveillance is most effectively carried out by space satellites or high-altitude manned aircraft like the $70 million American U-2, which is expected to be retired by the end of the decade.

The low-level air reconnaissance and combat missions are carried out by cheap UAVs used and controlled by the ground forces. Control of UAVs was initially a problem in the United States where the air force insisted it must control anything the flew in the combat zone. The army felt this was nonsense and in 2008 the U.S. Air Force and Army agreed to amend the half century understanding known as the Treaty of Key West that restricted what kind of aircraft the army could use. The 1950s agreement ended nearly a decade of bickering about how much control over U.S. military aircraft the newly created, in 1947, air force should have. Early on, the air force sought to control everything. The navy and marines fought the air force to a draw, but the army came off less well. The army was allowed to have all the new and untried helicopters it could get its hands on, but was restricted to only a few fixed wing aircraft, and none of them could be large or armed. The army was not happy with this, but the Key West deal, forced on them by president, and former army general Eisenhower, at least ended the constant feuding and uncertainty. But the new deal allows the army to have fixed wing combat aircraft again, but they cannot carry any people, not even pilots.

This was all about UAVs, in particular the Predator and its derivatives, Reaper, Grey Eagle and Mohave. These aircraft changed the way wars were fought, and the army had built a fleet of over a thousand UAVs in the first decade of use. The air force protested this, but the army was doing most of the fighting in wars that began after September 2001, and had the clout to persuade the air force to change the rules about what kind of aircraft the army could have. The army was then able to have fixed wing combat aircraft, initially in the form of over 500 MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAVs. These 1.6 ton UAVs were based on the Predator and Reaper designs and were meant mainly for surveillance. MQ-1C could carry Hellfire missiles but often did not and concentrated on surveillance. The army only received 204 MQ-1Cs and four of those are headed for Ukraine.

The U.S. Army and Air Force also negotiated out an agreement on how to use, and share, this growing fleet of armed UAVs. That's because the air force and army use their UAVs differently. For the army, the UAV is a tool for the local combat commander. That's why each combat division received a MQ-1C squadron. Combat brigades will also get detachments of two to four UAVs as needed even though the brigades always have several smaller 170 kg RQ-7 Shadow 200 UAVs assigned. The army began using RQ-7 in 2002 and has received over 400 so far with more on the way. The RQ-7 is more compact and can be transported and launched with a pneumatic device. The army is seeking to replace RQ-7 with a new UAV by the end of the decade.

The air force uses Predator and Warrior class UAVs more as strategic recon aircraft and put them at the disposal of the most senior combat commander in a region, which was originally CENTCOM, or Central Command, that covered Afghanistan and the Middle East. The air force believed that the army policy of assigning Sky Warriors to brigade and division commanders was wasteful, because many would be sitting on the ground when the CENTCOM commander has a mission that would benefit from the maximum number of UAVs being used. But the army convinced the air force that, for the combat brigade commander, having those UAVs under his command all the time was essential to planning and carrying out combat operations. Too often in the past, getting the needed number of aircraft from the air force/navy pool was chancy, and a major headache for ground commanders. This new policy wasn't all that new. During World War II, the Russians gave ground commanders their own air forces, for the same reason American commanders still needed them 65 years later.

The U.S. Air Force is planning on replacing its MQ-1B Predators with the new U.S. Army MQ-1C. The latter is developed from the former and both are built by the same manufacturer. The air force and army have already agreed to cooperate on maintaining and further developing Predator and Sky Warrior UAVs, which will save money for both services. But the air force is alarmed at some of the army's ideas for operating the MQ-1C. For example, the army wants to rely more on the software, than trained pilots, for flying the UAVs. In fact, the army will not use pilots at all as operators. This appalls the air force, which is scrambling to turn fighter and transport pilots into Predator operators. The air force does use non-pilots for micro-UAVs, similar to the army's two kg Raven, which are used to help guard air force bases. But for larger UAVs the air force is concerned about collisions with other UAVs or manned aircraft. The army believes the future holds technological solutions for this problem. Besides, the army can't spare pilots to man its planned force of several hundred MQ-1Cs.

General Atomics, the manufacturer of the Predator UAV, developed the new MQ-1C UAV. The army wanted 45 squadrons, each with 12 UAVs, at a cost of about $8 million per aircraft including ground equipment. MQ-1C weighs 1.5 tons, carries 136 kg of sensors internally, and up to 227 kg of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of up to 36 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. The MQ-1C is heavier than the one-ton Predator, and a bit larger and more capable in general. Basically, it's Predator Plus, with the added ability to land and take off automatically and carry four Hellfire missiles compared to two on the Predator.

The size of the army UAV force also scares the air force. The MQ-1C carried Hellfire missiles and Viper Strike smart bombs. While the air force has agreed to coexist with the new army air force, the army has also agreed to work out how to handle the new traffic problems. MQ-1C has a max ceiling of 9,000 meters, which puts it up there (above 3,100 meters) where the large, manned, air force aircraft operate. Below 3,100 meters, especially below 300 meters, pilots are warned to be alert for army artillery shells and rockets, as well as the 2.2 kg Raven UAVs. Basically, it's dangerous down low, although army helicopter pilots survive. But they can move slowly, while air force jets require the army personnel to make sure the air is clear of little UAVs and large artillery shells before coming on the deck for some gunnery. The air force A-10 pilots do this all the time, but it can be unnerving for an F-16 pilot. So, the air force and the army have formed a group to not only work out new rules, but to keep an eye on the situation indefinitely, because there will always be new aircraft and technology to work into the air control system.

The post-2001 war on terror, and the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, created a radical change in the way air power supports the ground troops, all because of UAVs and smart bombs. The former made aircraft much more effective at reconnaissance, while the latter made aircraft much more effective at close air support. Both of these changes were radical, not just incremental little improvements on what had been done before. Now the army has gained direct control over the new combat aircraft like the MQ-1C, while also acquiring smart, GPS guided shells and rockets. The air force is still useful for gaining and maintaining control of the air, and for air transport, but it is not as critical as it was before. The air force has lost much of its usefulness at reconnaissance and direct combat support. This was a major shift in combat power, and it will now be up to the army, much more so than in the past, to develop new strategies and tactics for the use of air power. The U.S. Army Air Force, which dissolved into the U.S. Air Force in 1947, is back.



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