March 30, 2004
The U.S. Army is sending two weapons-carrying Hunter RQ-5A UAVs to Iraq, marking the second (public) debut of armed UAVs and the first for the Army. Since 1999, the RQ-5A has been flown by the Army for real-time reconnaissance and surveillance and has seen service over Macedonia in support of NATO forces in Kosovo and in Iraq since last year in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The UAV typically carries TV and FLIR sensors for day/night surveillance, has a 200 kilometers operating range 300 kilometers using another Hunter as a communications relay and 12 hour endurance capability. It can also be equipped with a laser designator.
The Hunters will carry the Viper Strike precision munition, a derivative of the BAT submuntion with a semi-active laser seeker substituted for the BAT's infrared and acoustic sensors. Viper Strike is designed to be used in mountainous terrain and urban areas where a steep angle of attack is required. In other words, it comes straight down on top of the designed target. Originally designed as a submunition, Viper Strike is an unpowered glider about 36 inches long, some five inches in diameter with wings folded, and weighing 44 pounds. A new, lighter (11 pounds) version of the Viper is in the works. An official operational range for Viper Strike is not documented, but as an unpowered glide weapon dependent upon laser designation, it is likely not to be more than one or two kilometers from the UAV launching it. A follow-on version of Viper Strike will incorporate more accurate imaging infra-red and millimeter wave sensors in a single sensor. Less-lethal versions of Viper Strike (i.e. without a warhead) are also under considering for disabling vehicles.
In comparison, the Hellfire looks fat at over 5 feet long, 28 inches across with fins, and around 100 lbs in weight with a much larger warhead. Viper Strike is cheaper and quieter (no rocket motor), lighter (more munitions per lift weight), and its smaller warhead generates less collateral damage. For the streets of Baghdad, the Hunter/Viper Strike combination looks to be a much better fit. -- Doug Mohney