Attrition: The Strange Impact of Predator Losses

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April 3, 2007: The U.S. Air Force has, so far, lost 53 of the 139 Predator UAVs it has received. Another 110 Predators are on order, but the manufacturer is turning them out as fast as they can. Most of the losses are not combat related. Component failure, or operator error are the most common cause. Not being on board, the operators have a hard time quickly determining what might be wrong. That delay often results in a lost UAV. The same is true for landings, which have a higher error rate than manned aircraft. Nearly all the lost Predators are the "A" model (the MQ-1).

Some of the losses have been the result of collisions with smaller army UAVs. The air force is using that as a reason to give the air force control over all UAVs that operate over at over 3,500 feet. This has caused some pretty testy exchanges between the air force and the other services. The army usually has many more (over 50 times more) UAVs in the air than the air force, although most of these are low altitude micro-UAVs used by infantry and Special Forces units. The army does not want to let the air force have control of its UAVs, because these aircraft provide essential air reconnaissance that the air force is unable to provide. The Predators, in particular,are in great demand, because they can stay in the air much longer than army UAVs (which can, at most, stay up for about five hours per sortie). Predators each average about 110 hours in the air per month. Each aircraft flies 6-7 sorties a month, each one lasting 17-18 hours on average.

Currently, the army only gets about a third of its requests for Predator missions filled. That's because the air force has not got enough Predators. There is also a shortage of Predator operators. A typical Predator crew consists of an pilot and a sensor operator. Because the Predator stays in the air for so long, more than one crew is needed for each sortie. Crew shortages sometimes result in Predators coming down before their fuel is used up. The air force insists that existing pilots (of manned aircraft) be trained as Predator operators. The army uses NCOs trained specifically for UAV operation. The smallest (and most widely used) army UAVs are the under-ten pound micro-UAVs, which can be operated, after a few hours of training, by any soldier with some experience using video games. The army has no operator shortage.

The army is developing a new UAV, the Warrior, which is sort of "Predator Lite." This aircraft will look like Predator (both are made by the same company) and have an endurance of up to 30 hours. The army is buying at least 128 Warriors and expects to start receiving them in two years. Given the shortage of Predators, the army may buy more Warriors, and fight particularly hard at continued air force attempts to get control over army UAV development.

 


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