April 7, 2009:
Nineteen months ago, a U.S. Army UAV was first used to attack a ground target. A MQ-5A Hunter UAV used a GBU-44 Viper Strike smart bomb to kill two men who were setting up a roadside bomb. SOCOM is considering using Viper Strike on their AC-130 gunships, in place of the 105mm cannon. The Viper Strike would allow the AC-130 to fly higher (than required for the 105mm weapon to be used) and be safer from ground fire. But because the MQ-5A is the only weapon using the Viper Strike, there is not enough demand to put the Viper Strike into mass production. Worse, the MQ-5A Hunter will soon be replaced by a larger Warrior UAV, that can carry Hellfire missiles.
The Hunter lost out to the Predator in the 1990s competition for a primary battlefield UAV. But the army kept in storage the 61 it had, and put them back in action in time for the 1999 Kosovo operation. The need for UAVs in Iraq kept Hunter in action still longer. So far, the Hunters have flown nearly 60,000 hours, over half of them in combat, and most of that in just the last year. Although considered inferior to the Predator, the Hunter has turned into a popular UAV, and received a number of upgrades. However, the Predator, with twice as many aircraft in service, has flown over 400,000 hours so far. The new army UAV, the Warrior, is now entering service, and is based on the Predator.
The 1,600 pound MQ-5A can only carry 200 pounds of sensors and weapons. It's an Israeli design, and the Israelis have had great success with it. But the Predator is larger and has longer endurance, and this has been a major advantage. Predator can also carry hundred pound Hellfire missiles, while the Hunter can only carry two 44 pound Viper Strike smart bombs. A new version of the Hunter has a more powerful engine and larger fuel capacity, giving it 40 hours endurance, and a weight of 2,200 pounds. The new version is called MQ-5B, and the army has ordered 18 of them, as well as upgrading nine MQ-5As to B versions. The MQ-5B also has improved software, which enables it to take off and land by itself. Endurance for Hunter has been increased several times over the last few years, from the original eleven hours.
Viper Strike is a 36 inch long unpowered glider. The 130mm diameter (with the wings folded) weapon weighs 44 pounds. Because the Viper Strike comes straight down, it is better suited for urban warfare. Its warhead weighs only four pounds, and less than half of that is explosives. This means less damage to nearby civilians, but still powerful and accurate enough to destroy its target. A laser designator makes the Viper Strike accurate enough to hit an automobile, or a foxhole. However, people on the ground tend to prefer the faster (it's a rocket), larger (100 pound, with a 20 pound warhead) Hellfire missile. And then there are even lighter competitors coming along, like the 25 pound, 70mm laser guided rocket with a six pound rocket.
The first test of Viper Strike, launched from a UAV, took place five years ago. The delays, in getting this weapon in the hands of the troops, were caused largely by disagreements over technical and organizational issues. Not an uncommon event, although in wartime it's often possible to cut through the crap. Part of that dispute is with the U.S. Air Force. For over half a century, the army and air force have abided by the "Treaty of Key West," an agreement president Eisenhower forced them to hammer out. The terms give the air force a monopoly on fixed wing warplanes, and allows the army to only operate small, two engine, fixed wing transports. However, the army can have all the helicopters it can get. UAVs were not covered in the Key West agreement, although UAVs existed in the 1950s. But armed UAVs were still only a distant possibility back then. Now the air force wants to extend its fixed wing monopoly to include armed UAVs. The army does not agree, and the Pentagon agreed to revise the Key West treaty, and allow the army to continue rebuilding the new Army Air Force with larger (over a hundred pounds) UAVs.