Murphy's Law: The Orphans Make Good

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September 21, 2007: The U.S. Army scored its first kill with an unmanned air vehicle recently, when a MQ-5 Hunter UAV dropped a laser-guided bomb on some terrorists while they were planting a roadside bomb. In essence, the Army is returning to armed fixed-wing aircraft, which it has not been allowed to have since the Air Force was formed in 1947 and the Key West Agreement of 1948 banned such operations.

What is of particular note is that the UAV and the bomb used both came from Army programs that might have been seen as failures or "pork". The MQ-5 started out life as the BQM-155, and 56 were purchased by the Army in the 1990s. Several were lost in crashes, and the program was quietly canceled. However, the UAVs got a new lease on life during military operations in Kosovo in 1999, and then in Ieaq. Eventually, upgrades were developed, including the ability to use the new GBU-44 Viper Strike precision-guided bomb. The Army also bought 18 more MQ-5Bs in 2005. The MQ-5 is also being adapted to carry the AGM-114 Hellfire, already a proven terrorist-killer in the hands of Predator operators (both Air Force and CIA) and Israeli Apache pilots.

The GBU-44 used in the mission is also an Army program that got some lucky breaks. The GBU-44 started life as the Brilliant Anti-Tank submunition, or BAT. BAT originally used infrared and acoustic sensors to locate targets. However, the problem was that the systems that was supposed to carry, it kept getting cancelled. First, the MGM-137 TSSAM was cancelled for financial reasons, and then the Army never bought a version of the ATACMS rocket (fired by the MLRS) that was to carry it. It looked like a submunition without a weapon until the Army gave it a laser-guidance system, and modified the MQ-5 to carry it.

The MQ-5 was a natural fit for the GBU-44, since it already had a laser designator. Originally, this was to guide in Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs. The latter had a problem - they often would cause a lot of collateral damage, even the250 pound SDB, which carried 50 pounds of high explosive. This was why the Israelis eventually turned to the Hellfire, which has a 20-pound warhead. The GBU-44 has about a two and a quarter-pound warhead. Perfect for taking out a terrorist in a car or a room with very little collateral damage. In counter-insurgency, that feature's importance cannot be overemphasized.

The final lesson this story has is that even "failed" systems, which one might see the MQ-5 and GBU-44's predecessors as, may turn out to be valuable if they get a chance. In this case, the MQ-5 got a chance due to wars, and the GBU-44 was selected as a system for it - hanging around after its initial delivery systems were canceled. In one sense, they are exhibits in favor of sticking with programs like the Littoral Combat Ship and ARH-70, both of which have had problems. In another sense, they can lead one to wonder just what might have happened had the DOD stuck with programs like the RAH-66 Comanche. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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