Air Weapons: Reaper Does Air-to-Air

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October 29, 2018: The U.S. Air Force recently confirmed that it had successfully tested a MQ-9 Reaper UAV firing an AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missile against an unmanned aerial target and that the Stinger took down the target. The target was not described but could have been a QMQ-1 Predator assigned to serve as an aerial target. The air force regularly converts older fighters to operate by remote control and serve as realistic aerial targets. The latest one is the QF-16. The reason the air force would likely use a Predator as a target aircraft is that the most likely UAV American UAVs would want to shoot down in wartime would be Chinese. That is because China is the only potentially hostile power building armed and unarmed UAVs similar to the Predator and Reaper.

MQ-9 Reaper entered service in 2007 and some 300 have been delivered or are on order since then. MQ-9 is a 4.7 ton, 11.6 meters (36 foot) long aircraft with a 21.3 meters (66 foot) wingspan that has six hard points and can carry 682 kg (1,500 pounds) of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), multiple Stinger (each 16 kg, with 8 kilometer range), two Sidewinder (86 kg, 35 kilometers) or two AMRAAM (152 kg, 100 kilometers) 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 now over 40 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in many situations. In 2017 air force Reapers carried out about 120 airstrikes a month and used about 200 smart bombs and missiles doing it. Reaper, however, still spends most of its time carrying out reconnaissance and surveillance missions and the air force has never been able to keep up with the demand for that sort of thing.

The AIM-92 Stinger is the air-to-air version of the shoulder-fired SAM (Surface to Air) missile in use since the 1980s. The current Block 2 AIM-92 has an improved heat-seeking guidance system and is generally more reliable. The earlier Block 1 AIM-92 was actually used against a hostile aircraft in 2002 and lost. This was over Iraq, where the Iraqis were increasingly violating the peace deal they signed after their defeat in the 1991 war. An MQ-1 Predator UAV, armed with Stingers, was sent up as bait to get the Iraqis to send up one of their fighters. The Iraqis sent up a MiG-25 armed with heat-seeking missiles. The American fighters were unable to intervene in time and the Predator fired a Stinger at the approaching MiG-25 but the Stinger guidance system (a heat detector) was apparently distracted by the heat generated by the larger heat-seeking missile the MiG fired. The Stinger missed and the Iraqi missile didn’t.

The AIM-92 had entered service in 1996 as armament for American helicopters for use against enemy helicopters or, if necessary, fixed wing aircraft. The Reaper has always been capable of using the Stinger but it was never tested against another aircraft. Same with the heat-seeking Sidewinder or the radar guided AMRAAM. While the Sidewinder would be easy enough for Predator to use, the radar-equipped AMRAAM would be used against BVR (Beyond Visual Range) targets. These would be located by friendly aircraft or ground radars and the data passed to the Reaper operator who would fire the AMRAAM. This could be useful in support of the F-35 or F-22 stealth fighters that, for maximum stealth, carry a limited number of bombs or missiles internally. Reaper is relatively stealthy because it is small and can safely fly at low altitudes. Moreover, the launch of the AMRAAM would reveal the location of the Reaper, not the stealth fighter. This sort of thing has been discussed in the air force but nothing has been done with it, at least nothing that was revealed to the general public.

Meanwhile, China is offering for a growing number of armed UAVs for export. The latest, announced in 2017, is a UAV described as a direct competitor to the American MQ-9 Reaper. The Chinese version is the GJ-1 UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle). This is a combat version of the Wing Loong 2 UAV and made its first flight as the GJ-1 in February 2017 and by June several of them were seen in Tibet, near the Indian border and described as the GJ-1. This version of the Wing Loong 2 has five hardpoints for air-to-ground weapons. The GJ-1 is described as being able to carry up to 16 missiles. That is made possible by the new smaller AR-2 laser-guided missile that weighs 17 kg (40 pounds) and can use a special rack that hangs from one hard point and carries four AR-2s, which also have 8 kilometer range. There is a similar rack that can carry two BA-7 (Hellfire size) missiles off one hard point. Max payload of the GJ-1 is 600 kg (1,300 pounds) but around 20 percent of that is taken up by the cameras, communication and fire control system (including laser designator). The rest is for weapons, which could include heat-seeking air-to-air missiles.

The original Wing Loong 1 (that's Chinese for Pterodactyl, a Jurassic period flying dinosaur) UAV entered service in 2008 and was basically a Chinese version of the American MQ-1 Predator that entered service in 1995 but did not start using weapons until 2001. Both Predator and Wing Loong 1 could fire two laser-guided missiles (Hellfire for MQ-1 and BA-7 for Wing Loong 1. In place of the BA-7 the Wing Loong 1 could carry or two 60 kg (110 pound) GPS guided bombs (similar to the U.S. SDB).

Although Wing Loong 1 entered service with the Chinese military in 2008 this turned out to be over three years of field testing because it was not offered for export until 2012. Wing Loong 1 was first seen in flight, over the capital of Uzbekistan, in 2012. The UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Uzbekistan were the first export customers. It was later revealed that development on Wing Loong began in 2005, first flight was in 2007 and Chinese troops got the first ones in 2008 for further testing, not combat use.

While Wing Loong 1 is similar in shape to the larger American MQ-9 Reaper, in size it's almost identical to the 1.2 ton MQ-1 Predator. Wing Loong 1 weighs 1.1 tons, has a 14 meter (46 feet) wingspan, and is 9 meters (28 feet) long. It has a max altitude of 5,300 meters (16,400 feet), max speed of 270 kilometers an hour and an endurance of over 20 hours. Payload is 200 kg.

Wing Loong 2 is a little smaller than the MQ-9 with a wingspan of 20.5 meters (66 feet), top speed of 370 kilometers an hour, an endurance of 20 hours and comes equipped with satellite link (which was an option on Wing Loong 1). Wing Loong 2 has an improved aerodynamic, sturdier airframe and improved flight control software.

Another Chinese manufacturer manufactures a similar line of UCAVs. There are the CH-5 that is similar to the MQ-9 Reaper but a bit lighter at 3.2 tons. The CH-5 has a one ton payload and used the same weapons as the Predator size CH-4B. CH-5 made its first flight in 2015, has an endurance of over 30 hours and can carry up to 16 missiles and smart bombs.

For several decades a growing number of Chinese commercial firms have been developing military UAVs and dual-use commercial UAVs. Unlike most Western nations, China will sell military UAVs to anyone who can pay and is not bothered about the use of bribes and other illegal (in the West) payments. In other words, Wing Loong is priced to move.

 


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