July 20, 2009



The Predator was introduced to operations in the summer of 1995. Three Predators were deployed over Bosnia that summer, flying out of Albania, with one command-destroyed after an engine failure and another apparently shot down. These aircraft were replaced. Initially, these Predators only had the Skyball turret payload, but they were withdrawn to the US for fitting the SAR payload, and then returned in the spring of 1996. The Predator was passed over to Air Force control after its Bosnian service. The Air Force promptly put the Predator into service in the air campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999.

The Air Force handed the Predator over to the service's Big Safari office after the Kosovo campaign in order to accelerate tests of the UAV in a strike role, fitted with reinforced wings and stores pylons to carry munitions, as well as a laser target designator to designate weapons for itself and other strike platforms. The Predator's service in the Kosovo campaign left something to be desired, since it was unarmed and operators of the UAV were not properly trained or equipped to direct strike aircraft pilots onto a target. The result was a comedy of errors, with one officer involved saying that with such clumsy methods it would 45 minutes to get a strike aircraft into the same zip code. The laser target designator allowed targets to be pinpointed for strike aircraft quickly and accurately, with the Predator firing its own munitions when a target was likely to be gone before a strike aircraft arrived.

This effort led to a series of tests in February 2001, in which the Predator fired three Hellfire anti-armor missiles, scoring hits on a stationary tank with all three missiles. The effectiveness of the scheme was a relief, because nobody was quite sure if firing a Hellfire from a Predator might not rip the UAV's wing right off. The configuration was put into service, with the armed Predators given the new designation of "MQ-1A". Given that a Predator is very unobtrusive and the Hellfire is supersonic, such a combination gives little warning of attack.

A new "Hellfire P" variant of the missile has been fielded, featuring an "off boresight" seeker that can be gimballed to get a target lock, eliminating the need to point the Predator at a target. This permits faster targeting and a wider missile launch envelope. The Air Force is working on carriage of the Viper glide weapon. The service has also investigated using the Predator to drop battlefield ground sensors, and (as discussed later) to carry and deploy the "Finder" mini-UAV. Over the long run, the USAF wants to use a 113 kilogram (250 pound) GPS-guided "small diameter bomb (SDB)".

The Air Force has long been cautious about arming UAVs, since armed long-range UAVs are technically outlawed by the 1988 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty which prohibits ground-launched cruise missiles. Interestingly, the INF does not ban arming ship or submarine launched UAVs, nor short-range tactical UAVs. Since the USAF is now very enthusiastic about the armed Predator, since it is proving an excellent weapon in America's current "war on terror", the legal implications will likely become a matter of diplomatic discussion.

* The Hellfire experiments were quickly put to use. After attacks on America on 11 September 2001 by terrorists believed to be associated with Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden and his Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda terrorist network, in early October of that year the US military began a campaign against Afghanistan intended to root out Osama and the al-Qaeda.

The Predator was a particularly important element in the campaign, being used by the USAF to locate high-priority targets for air strikes. The Predators were armed with Hellfires to ensure that if Osama or other al-Qaeda leadership were spotted, they could be attacked immediately. On 18 November 2001, a Predator was supporting an attack on a Taliban site when the UAV's operators spotting enemy forces fleeing the site. A Hellfire was launched, killing dozens, including some Taliban leadership.
By the time of the Afghan campaign, the Air Force had acquired 60 Predators, and lost 20 of them in action. Few if any of the losses were from enemy action. The Predator was not a very mature machine, with one significant problem being that communications from friendly forces can break the command datalink, which resulted in the loss of at least one Predator. The fact that it has a limited operational ceiling means that it can't fly above storm conditions, and foul weather, particularly icy conditions, caused the lion's share of the losses.

In response to the losses caused by cold weather flight conditions, a few of the later Predators obtained by the USAF were fitted with de-icing systems, along with an uprated turbocharged engine and improved avionics. This improved "Block 1" version is referred to as the "RQ-1L", or the "MQ-1L" if it can carry munitions.

On 3 November 2002, an MQ-1L operating over Yemen spotted a car that was identified as carrying a high al-Qaeda official and five of his people. The Predator blasted the car with a Hellfire, killing all the occupants. The UAV was operated by the CIA, but was being flown by a USAF pilot from a French military base in Djibouti, in the horn of Africa. The attack was cued by observers on the ground.
Of course, Predators were employed in the American invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. One fired a Hellfire at an antenna on the roof of the Iraqi propaganda ministry in Baghdad to get the propaganda minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, off the air. The propaganda minister had acquired an international reputation for his colorful remarks, and was known as "Baghdad Bob" to American forces, but the decision was taken to finally shut him up. The Predator-Hellfire was used because the propaganda ministry was close to the grand mosque and nobody wanted to risk damaging it by using a larger munition.

Interestingly, some of the older Predators and Gnat-750s, as well as old Pioneer and Hunter UAVs, were stripped down to be used as decoys to provoke Iraqi defenses. After the occupation of Iraq, CIA-operated Predators and I-Gnats were launched from both Afghanistan and Iraq to probe Iran for evidence of a nuclear program, with one apparently lost in a crash in Iran in the summer of 2005.

Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding out in the mountains of Pakistan and Predators are also on patrol there, waiting for him to show himself. He is distinctive, being very tall and slender, making him a good target. In 2008, Predator attacks on Islamic militants became so commonplace that the Pakistani government protested loudly over the incidents. There was suspicion the Bush II Administration was attempting to pressure the Pakistanis into taking more decisive action against the militants.

Incidentally, USAF Predators in the Middle East are actually "piloted" from Nellis AFB and Creech AFB in Nevada. Only a relatively small service and handling team deals with the machines "in theater". One pilot flying the Predator from Nellis who had been on the battle lines says the experience is much the same: "Physically, we may be in Vegas [Nellis AFB is next door to Las Vegas], but mentally we're flying over Iraq. It feels real."

The Air Force had been hard-pressed to train personnel to fly the Predators, and the pilots have been badly overloaded, making retention troublesome. A "multiple aircraft" control system is being introduced, allowing one pilot to control up to four Predators, with three machines operating on autopiloted search patterns while one is under direct control. The USAF regards getting up the operational learning curve as a high priority, since the number of Air Force Predator squadrons is expected to expand rapidly.
One of the limitations of the Predator's EO system is that it has a narrow field of view. It works well enough to inspect a particular target, but it leaves much to be desired in keeping an eye on the "big picture". Two Predators have been flown in Iraq with a set of commercial off-the-shelf cameras mounted over the airframe to give a wide-area picture, the images from the different cameras being stitched together by software. They can only provide a frame or two per second and have no night / foul weather capability, but they have proven the concept and the Pentagon is interested in developing a more capable system.

* With the Predator proving so useful, in the summer of 2005 the US Army, having initiated an "Extended Range Multi-Purpose (ERMP)" UAV requirement a year earlier, formally decided to jump on board the bandwagon by awarding a contract to General Atomics for the "MQ-1C Sky Warrior", sometimes known just as the "Warrior", a Predator with a heavy fuel (diesel / jet fuel) engine, a slightly increased wingspan, and increased system redundancy. The Army had already operated I-Gnats in small numbers from 2003.

The Sky Warrior carries surveillance, communications relay, and strike payloads. The heavy-fuel engine is said to provide more horsepower, better fuel efficiency, and greater reliability than the Rotax 912 gasoline engine, though apparently the major driving force for adopting the new engine was the fact that Army vehicles are diesels, and having to support a gasoline engine in the field would have been logistically troublesome. The Sky Warrior features a Tactical Common DataLink (TCDL) along with its satellite comlink, and can carry a warload of four Hellfire missiles, twice that of the original Predator. Operational endurance is up to 30 hours. First flight was in the spring of 2008, with the initial "Block 0" Sky Warrior in service in Iraq a month later for combat evaluation.

The Army is definitely serious about the Sky Warrior, planning to obtain 11 systems, with 12 UAVs and 5 control stations per system. Combat in Iraq has obviously been a major driving force in the program, with ground forces in the theater relying on fighter jets with long-range targeting pods to provide real-time observation in support of ground combat operations. The Sky Warrior would be able to provide that capability with much more persistence and at much lower cost.
Although the relationship between the Air Force and the Army over the close-support mission has been generally, if not always, good, Army brass also like to have their own air support assets. Something of a "turf battle" has emerged between the Army and the Air Force over the Predator, with the Air Force attempting to take over control of relatively capable UAV assets such as the Sky Warrior from the Army. To no surprise, the Army has strongly resisted the idea.

* After a somewhat lengthy adolescence, the Predator has matured into a very useful system that has received a good deal of public attention. Unsurprisingly, General Atomics has developed an improved "Predator B" series.

General Atomics began development of the Predator B with the "Predator B-001", a proof-of concept aircraft, which performed its initial flight on 2 February 2001. The B-001 was powered by a Honeywell / Allied-Signal TPE-331-10T turboprop engine providing 712 kW (950 SHP). The Predator B-001 had a standard Predator airframe, except that the wings were stretched from 14.6 meters (48 feet) to 19.5 meters (64 feet). The B-001 had a speed of 390 KPH (240 MPH), compared to 220 KPH (135 MPH) for the Predator A, and could carry a payload of 340 kilograms (750 pounds) to an altitude of 15.2 kilometers (50,000 feet) with an endurance of 25 hours.

Although General Atomics originally considered a Predator B variant powered by a Williams FJ-44-2A turbofan engine providing 10.2 kN (1,040 kgp / 2,300 lbf) thrust, there was more interest in the turboprop configuration at the time, and the production Predator B machines retain the TP-331-10T engine. The production machines have a maximum ceiling of 15.8 kilometers (52,000 feet), and an endurance of 36 hours. The higher ceiling allows the Predator B to fly above bad weather conditions. The turboprop engine was not only more powerful than the Rotax piston engine, it also had a much longer mean time between failures. The ground system remained much the same as that of the original RQ-1 / MQ-1 Predator.

General Atomics had originally funded Predator B development with company money in anticipation of government interest and contracts, and they weren't disappointed. In October 2001, the US Air Force signed a contract with the company to purchase an initial pair of Predator Bs for evaluation, with follow-up orders for production machines; the USAF designated the type the "MQ-9B Hunter-Killer" or "Reaper". Cost is on the order of about $5 million USD each, more than a Predator A, but still a fraction of the cost of a piloted combat aircraft. Reapers were quickly fielded, performing combat evaluations in Afghanistan in late 2007, with flight control performed from the USA over satellite comlinks.

The MQ-9B is fitted with six stores pylons, with a maximum external load of 1,360 kilograms (3,000 pounds). The inner stores pylons can carry a maximum of 680 kilograms (1,500 pounds) each, and are "wet" to allow carriage of external fuel tanks. The midwing stores pylons can carry a maximum of 270 kilograms (600 pounds) each, while the outer stores pylons can carry a maximum of 90 kilograms (200 pounds) each. An MQ-9B with two 450 kilogram (1,000 pound) external fuel tanks and 450 kilograms of munitions has an endurance of 42 hours. An improved targeting system, with greater range and resolution, has also been fitted.

The Reaper gives the service an enhanced "deadly persistence" capability, with the UAV hanging over a combat area night and day, waiting for a target to present itself. In this role, an armed UAV neatly complements piloted strike aircraft. A piloted strike aircraft can be used to dump larger quantities of ordnance on a known target, while a cheaper UAV can be kept in operation almost continuously, with ground controllers trading off in shifts, carrying a light warload to engage targets of opportunity.
The current Hellfire may not be the preferred munition, since it isn't qualified for operation at cold temperatures found at high altitudes, nor does it have the range to hit targets from such altitudes. An improved Hellfire would be one armament option, as are the SDB and Viper, or even the 225 kilogram (500 pound) version of the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) GPS-guided bomb for larger targets.

The Stinger AAM has also been evaluated as a store, but it does not appear that this configuration has been fielded since there has been no operational need for it to this time. There has been some thought of carriage of the bigger Sidewinder, or even the long-range AIM-120 AMRAAM, as stores. The AMRAAM would require that the Reaper carry an improved radar with AMRAAM targeting and control capabilities. General Atomics has published ads showing the Reaper armed with twin 225 kilogram guided bombs, eight Hellfires, and two Sidewinders, demonstrating just how much of a punch the machine can pack.
The Reaper complements and doesn't replace the smaller, cheaper, Predator A; the Reaper is primarily a loitering strike asset, while the Predator A is primarily a surveillance and reconnaissance asset. The plan is for squadrons to operate one Reaper for about three Predator As, with a total force of at least 250 UAVs spread over 15 squadrons. Britain has also obtained three Reapers, for an urgent operational requirement in Afghanistan, and would like to acquire more, with some intent to use them for surveillance. The Royal Air Force would like to use the Reaper to provide security at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Italy has ordered a small batch of Predator Bs to follow up the purchase of the original Predator.

In addition, the US Forest Service (USFS) has evaluated a Reaper in a collaborative program with NASA and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The USFS and NASA conducted some trials in 2006 with a leased Predator B, leading to operations in 2007 with a Reaper obtained from the USAF. This machine was renamed "Ikhana", from the Chocktaw word for "intelligent" or "aware"; the name "Reaper" seemed a bit too warlike for a civil application. The Ikhana carried a NASA-designed infrared sensor package for fire mapping: although a standard Reaper can carry an infrared imager as a normal payload, it's too sensitive to be used to observe big, hot fires. The sensor package relayed imagery back to a ground station in real-time to allow warnings to be sent to fire-fighters.

NASA not surprisingly is also considering a range of other missions for the Ikhana. The US National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is planning collaborative UAV efforts with NASA for weather and climate research. The two agencies have long collaborated on weather satellites and UAVs would only be an extension of existing practice.

General Atomics has designed a navalized version of the Reaper, named the "Mariner", for carrier operations and has flown a demonstrator. The production Mariner would be turboprop-powered, with folding wings for carrier storage; shorter and more rugged landing gear; an arresting hook; cut-down or eliminated ventral flight surfaces; and six stores pylons with a total load of 1,360 kilograms (3,000 pounds).

Although General Atomics did backtrack on development of a turbofan-powered Predator B variant, the idea didn't die out. The company has acknowledged work on a "Predator C" with turbofan propulsion and improved stealth, but has not released details. Initial flight is expected in 2009.
Sidharth K Menon