Warplanes: U.S. Army Does The Million


June 1, 2010: The U.S. Army recently celebrated its large UAVs flying a million hours, mostly in the last two decades. Some 48 percent of those hours were flown by the RQ-7B Shadow 200. Moreover, 88 percent of those hours were racked up in Afghanistan and Iraq, since 2001. Currently, these larger UAVs are flying over 220,000 hours a year. The U.S. Army has been using these UAVs since 1996. The army did not count the hours flown by its most numerous UAV, the 2 kg/4.4 pound Raven, There are more than ten times as many Ravens as Shadows, and each infantry company has several (or as many more as they can scrounge up). Each Shadow puts in more hours than each Raven, as the Ravens only fly when the units that own them are heavily engaged. Moreover, the Raven has only been around for five years. Still, Ravens are probably doing over 500,000 hours a year. And, in many ways, these "micro-UAVs" have revolutionized warfare more than the larger models.

The U.S. Army normally assigns a Shadow 200 platoon to each combat brigade (there are about a dozen brigades in combat zones at the moment). Each of these platoons has 22 troops and operates four UAVs, plus the ground control equipment. Each 159 kg/350 pound Shadow 200 UAV costs $500,000, and can stay in the air 5.5 hours per sortie. A day camera and night vision camera is carried on each aircraft. Able to fly as high as 4,800 meters/15,000 feet (or more), the Shadow can thus go into hostile territory and stay high enough (over 3,200 meters/10,000 feet) to be safe from hostile rifle and machine-gun fire. The Shadow UAV can carry 25.5 kg/56 pounds of equipment, is 3.6 meters/eleven feet long and has a wingspan of 4.1 meters/12.75 feet. The Shadow has a range of about 50 kilometers. The army has had great success with the Shadow 200. While the RQ-7 is going to be replaced by the RQ-1C in the next few years, there is still an enormous demand for UAVs. So the 116 RQ-7s already delivered are being worked hard, and will probably be heavily used until worn out or lost in action.

In addition, there are two older UAVs that are still being used heavily. The MQ-5A Hunter lost out to the Predator in the 1990s competition for a primary battlefield UAV. But the army kept in storage the 61 it had, and put them back in action in time for the 1999 Kosovo operation. The need for UAVs in Iraq kept Hunter in action still longer. So far, the Hunters have flown over 60,000 hours, over half of them in combat. Although considered inferior to the Predator, the Hunter has turned into a popular UAV, and received a number of upgrades.

The 727 kg/1,600 pound MQ-5A can only carry 91 kg/200 pounds of sensors and weapons. It's an Israeli design, and the Israelis have had great success with it. A new version of the Hunter has a more powerful engine and larger fuel capacity, giving it 40 hours endurance, and a weight of one ton. The new version is called MQ-5B, and the army has ordered 18 of them, as well as upgrading nine MQ-5As to B versions. The MQ-5B also has improved software, which enables it to take off and land by itself. Endurance for Hunter has been increased several times over the last few years, from the original eleven hours.

In addition, for the last three years, the army been using twenty, one ton, Predator type UAVs,  called Sky Warrior Alpha, from the same firm that manufactures the Predator and Sky Warrior. "Alphas" were used in Iraq for counter-IED (roadside and suicide bombs) work. The Sky Warrior Alpha can carry 205 kg/450 pounds of sensors and 136 kg/300 pounds of weapons, and they have been used to fire 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.





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