Leadership: USAF And Army Come Together Over UAVs

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June 26, 2010: Now that the U.S. Army has its new MQ-1C UAVs operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have worked out a plan with the U.S. Air Force, to combine some maintenance and support functions for the army MQ-1C, and older, but very similar, air force MQ-1A Predator. For years, the air force wanted control over all army MQ-1Cs, but the army fought this, and the Department of Defense backed them up. So now the air force is making the most of a bad situation and working with the army to save money with some combined support operations.

The MQ-1Cs are slightly larger Predators, and are being used for missions formerly performed by Shadow 200, and other large army UAVs. The big difference is that Sky Warrior can carry weapons (like Hellfire missiles.) Thus the army will be using missile firing, fixed wing combat aircraft, something it has not been able to do for over half a century (since the U.S. Air Force was created out of the old U.S. Army Air Force in the late 1940s). The air force has accepted, for the moment, that unmanned aircraft are not the sole preserve of the air force, and the army is taking that and building a new air force for itself. The army tried this once before, during the Vietnam war, and eventually lost their fixed wing combat aircraft. The air force may be hoping for a historical repeat here.

The air force is not happy about the army having a large force of armed UAVs. Many air force generals believe the army should not have the MQ-1C, or at least not use them with weapons. That has already caused some spats in the Pentagon over the issue, but a recent purge and reshuffle of the senior air force leadership, by the Secretary of Defense, makes it appear that the army will be left alone to build its new robotic air force. At least for the moment.

Back in the 1950s, after a decade of bickering, the Department of Defense ordered the army to stick with helicopters, while the air force got all the fixed wing aircraft. But UAVs have no pilots in them and the army does not consider them part of the half century old deal. So the army is again flying armed aircraft, in addition to the armed helicopters it has always had. The army argument is that these larger UAVs work better for them if they are under the direct control of combat brigades. The air force sees that as inefficient, and would prefer to have one large pool of larger UAVs, that could be deployed as needed. This difference of opinion reflects basic differences in how the army and air force deploy and use their combat forces. The army has found that a critical factor in battlefield success is teamwork among members of a unit, and subordinate units in a brigade. While the air force accepts this as a critical performance issue for their aircraft squadrons, they deem it irrelevant for army use of UAVs. Seeing army MQ-1Cs doing visual and electronic reconnaissance and firing missiles at ground targets, the air force sees itself losing control of missions it has dominated since its founding in 1948.

Currently, the army has about 200 of these larger UAVs, most of them 159 kg/350 pound Shadow 200s. These carry day and night cameras, and laser designators, but usually no weapons. Most of the new army heavy UAVs delivered over the next five years will carry missiles, and by 2015, the army will have over 500 of them. The army currently has thousands of much smaller micro-UAVs. The air force does not bother too much with these, as they fly too low to bother air force aircraft, and are not armed.

The army has been quietly building its new "army air force" for a while. Four years ago, the army quietly bought twenty Predator type UAVs (called Sky Warrior Alpha) from the same firm that manufactures the Predator and Sky Warrior. These were in Iraq for over two years, mainly for counter-IED work with Task Force Odin. The one ton Sky Warrior Alpha can carry 205 kg/450 pounds of sensors and 136 kg/300 pounds of weapons, and a few of them have fired Hellfire missiles. Sky Warrior Alpha is, officially, the I-Gnat ER, which is based on a predecessor design of the Predator, the Gnat-750, and an improved model, the I-Gnat (which has been in use since 1989). The I-Gnat ER/ Sky Warrior Alpha looks like a Predator, but isn't. In terms of design and capabilities, they are cousins.

 The MQ-1C Sky Warrior weighs 1.5 tons, carries 136 kg/300 pounds of sensors internally, and up to 227 kg/500 pounds of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of up to 36 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. Sky Warrior has a wingspan 18 meters/56 feet and is 9 meters/28 feet long. The Sky Warrior can land and take off automatically, and carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator), or a dozen smaller 70mm guided missiles. MQ-1Cs cost $8 million each, but this will go down to $6 million as more are manufactured. A Sky Warrior company has 115 troops, 12 Sky Warrior UAVs and five ground stations. The army plans to equip each combat brigade with a Sky Warrior company. As its model number (MQ-1C) indicates, Sky Warrior is a Predator (MQ-1) replacement. The U.S. Air Force had planned to replace its MQ-1s with MQ-1Cs, but later choose to buy only larger Reapers. The Sky Warrior was developed by the army.

The original MQ-1A Predator is a one ton aircraft that is 8.9 meters/27 feet long with a wingspan of 15.8 meters/49 feet. It has two hard points, which usually carry one (47 kg/107 pound) Hellfire each. Max speed of the Predator is 215 kilometers an hour, max cruising speed is 160 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 8,100 meters/25,000 feet. Typical sorties are 12-20 hours each.  

The third member of the Predator family is the MQ-9 Reaper. This is a 4.7 ton, 11.6 meter/36 foot long aircraft with a 21.3 meter/66 foot wingspan that looks like the MQ-1. It has six hard points, and can carry 682 kg/1,500 pounds of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM 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 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace some F-16s or A-10s.

Army commanders believe that the air force still seeks to gain control over large army UAVs, and many air force commanders agree with that goal. So the battle continues.

 

 


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