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Warplanes: U.S. Army UAVs Frozen In Time
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March 12, 2013: Faced with smaller budgets over the next decade, the U.S. Army has halted evaluation of new UAVs and is standardizing on four existing models (Gray Eagle, Shadow 2000, Raven, and Puma). All four of these were developed and purchased in large quantities over the last dozen years and will remain the primary army UAVs for the next 5-10 years.

The army currently has nearly 7,000 UAVs. Over 6,000 are micro-UAVs like the Raven and Puma. These tiny (under six kg/13.2 pound) reconnaissance aircraft have become very popular with the troops, anyone of which can become an operator after a few hours of training. These tiny UAVs are a radical new military aircraft technology that took air recon to a new level. That level is low, a few hundred meters off the ground. The army has nearly 1,798 Raven and 325 Puma UAV systems in use by ground troops. A complete system (controller, spare parts, and three UAVs) costs $250,000 for the Raven and over $400,000 for Puma. These tiny aircraft have changed how the troops fight and greatly reduced army dependence on the air force for air reconnaissance. The lightweight, hand launched Raven UAV can only stay airborne about an hour per sortie, but troops have found that this is enough time to do all sorts of useful work, even when there's no fighting going on. This is most of the time. The heavier Puma can stay up for 120 minutes.

The two kilogram (4.4 pound) RQ-11 Raven UAV aircraft is popular with combat and non-combat troops alike. The army has developed better training methods, which enables operators to get more out of Raven. Combat troops use it for finding and tracking the enemy, while non-combat troops use it for security (guarding bases or convoys). In both cases troops have come to use the Raven for more than just getting a look over the hill or around the corner. The distinctive noise of a Raven overhead is very unpopular with the enemy below and is often used to scare the enemy away or make him move to where he can be more easily spotted.

The current model, the Raven B (RQ-11B), was introduced six years ago, a year after the original Raven entered service in large numbers. This UAV is inexpensive ($35,000 each). The Raven is battery powered (and largely silent unless flown close to the ground). It carries a color day vidcam or a two color infrared night camera. It can also carry a laser designator and a new gimbaled camera is being bought. The cameras broadcast real time video back to the operator, who controls the Raven via a handheld controller, which uses a hood to shield the display from direct sunlight (thus allowing the operator to clearly see what is on the ground). The Raven can go as fast as 90 kilometers an hour but usually cruises at between 40 and 50 kilometers an hour. It can go as far as 15 kilometers from its controller and usually flies a pre-programmed route, using GPS for navigation.

The Raven is made of Kevlar, the same material used in helmets and protective vests. On average, a Raven can survive about 200 landings before it breaks something. While some Ravens have been shot down, the most common cause of loss is losing the communications link (as the aircraft flies out of range or behind something that interrupts the signal) or a software/hardware failure on the aircraft. Combat losses have been high, as nearly 20,000 have been built and most of those have been lost in training or the battlefield.

From the very beginning the Raven changed the way troops fight. With the bird's eye view of the battlefield, commanders can move their troops more quickly, confident that they won't be ambushed and often with certain knowledge of where the unseen enemy is. The big advantage with Raven is that it’s simple, reliable, and it just works. The UAV can be quickly taken apart and put into a backpack. It takes off by having the operator start the motor and then throwing it. This can be done from a moving vehicle and the Raven is a popular recon tool for convoys. It lands by coming in low and then turning the motor off. Special Forces troops like to use it at night because the enemy can’t see it and often can’t hear it either.

Last year the U.S. Army began using the larger (5.9 kg) Puma AE UAVs. So far 325 RQ-20A systems have been ordered and most have been delivered. Adopting Puma is part of an army effort to find micro-UAVs that are more effective than current models and just as easy to use. The Puma, a 5.9 kg (13 pound) UAV with a 2.6 meter (8.5 feet) wingspan and a range of 15 kilometers from the operator, has proved to be the next big (or micro) thing the army was looking for. Combat commanders quickly realized how useful Puma is and wanted more, as quickly as possible. This is not surprising as SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has been using Puma since 2008.

The army wants to equip each infantry company with a Puma system. That would mean 18 Puma AE UAVs per brigade and nearly 400 for the entire army. These larger UAVs have been most useful in route clearance (scouting ahead to spot ambushes, roadside bombs, landslides, washouts, or whatever). The larger Puma is particularly useful in Afghanistan, which is windier than Iraq and thus more difficult for the tiny Raven to operate.

Top speed for Puma is 87 kilometers an hour and cruising speed is 37-50 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 3,800 meters (12,500 feet). Puma has a better vidcam (providing tilt, pan, and zoom) than the smaller Raven and that provides steadier and more detailed pictures. Because it is larger than Raven, and three times as heavy, Puma is much steadier in bad weather. Both Puma and Raven are battery powered.

Puma has been around for a decade but never got purchased in large quantities by anyone. The latest model uses a lot of proven tech from the Raven (both UAVs are made by the same company). Like the Raven, Puma is hand launched and can be quickly snapped together or apart. Another version, using a fuel cell, has been tested and was able to stay in the air for nine hours at a time. There is also a naval version that floats and is built to withstand exposure to salt water.

Each combat brigade is now supposed to have 35 mini-UAV systems (each with three UAVs, most of them Raven but at least ten of these systems are to be Pumas). That means that each combat brigade now has its own air force of over a hundred reconnaissance aircraft.

Then there are the larger UAVs. The Gray Eagle is replacing several other large UAVs. Most of these are the RQ-7 Shadow (over 300) and smaller numbers of MQ-5 Hunters, Sky Warrior Alpha, and RQ-18 MAV (helicopter type) systems. The MQ-1C weighs 1.5 tons, carries 135.4 kg (300 pounds) of sensors internally, and up to 227.3 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. MQ-1C has a wingspan of 18 meters (56 feet) and is 9 meters (28 feet) long. The MQ-1C can carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator) or a dozen smaller 70mm guided missiles. Each MQ-1C costs about $10 million. The army uses warrant officers as operators. The MQ-1C has automated takeoff and landing software and is equipped with a full array of electronics (target designators and digital communications so troops on the ground can see what the UAV sees).

The army began sending platoons (each with four aircraft) of its new MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAV to Afghanistan in 2011. The first MQ-1C aviation company was formed in 2009 and was assigned to the U.S. Army 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment), which belongs to SOCOM (Special Operations Command). The army plans to eventually equip each combat brigade with an MQ-1C company and establish over three dozen of these companies.

The MQ-1C is based on the MQ-1 Predator, which is a one ton aircraft and can do most everything the Gray Eagle can, except carry larger sensors and more weapons. The 159 kg (350 pound) Shadow 200s 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 wants to have over 500 MQ-1Cs and perhaps a few Shadow 200s that have not worn out.

The army is proceeding to spend scare cash on new sensors for existing UAVs and the old Shadow 200s have gotten other new components (engines, wings, and so on). This is because that, while the army plans to buy nearly 500 Gray Eagles, it has less than a hundred so far and they are expensive. So money problems may halt or slow down procurement. Gray Eagle and Shadow are the key long range UAVs used by brigade and division headquarters to take in the big picture.

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