Warplanes: The Old Gray Eagle


October 11, 2010: The U.S. Army has selected a name for its new MQ-1C UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). It will be called the Gray Eagle. Until now, it was informally known as the Sky Warrior. The army already has some pre-production MQ-1Cs, which have been serving in combat zones. The Gray Eagle will join an already vast  UAV fleet. The U.S. Army currently has 87 RQ-7 Shadow UAV systems (with several UAVs each), six MQ-5 Hunter systems, nine MQ-1Cs, 12 Sky Warrior Alphas, over 4,000 Ravens (in 1,300 systems, assigned to infantry companies, convoys and base defense) and 16 RQ-18 MAV (helicopter type) systems. Army UAVs now spend over 25,000 hours a month in the air. It took army UAVs 13 years to achieve their first 100,000 air hours, and 8.5 years to get their next 900,000 hours.

The army needs as many MQ-1Cs as it can get. To keep one MQ-1C in the air, often necessary to maintain constant surveillance on something of interest, or to assist a ground unit under constant threat, requires several MQ-1Cs. By the end of next year, the manufacturers will be turning out two MQ-1Cs a month.

The first MQ-1C aviation company was formed a year ago. An MQ-1C aviation company has 115 troops, 12 MQ-1Cs and five ground stations. The first MQ-1C company was assigned to the U.S. Army 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment), which belongs to SOCOM. The army plans to eventually equip each combat brigade with a MQ-1C company, and establish 45 of these companies. The new SOCOM MQ-1C unit will support special operations (Special Forces, SEALs, rangers, NATO commandos) in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, the MQ-1C achieved Quick Reaction Capability 2, meaning that it can carry Hellfire missiles.

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. SMQ-1C has a wingspan 18 meters/56 feet and is 9 meters/28 feet long. The MQ-1C can land and take off automatically, and 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 original MQ-1 Predator is a one ton aircraft that is 8.7 meters/27 feet long with a wingspan of 15.8 meters/49 feet. It has two hard points, which usually carry one (47 kg/107 pound) Hellfire each. Max speed of the Predator is 215 kilometers an hour, max cruising speed is 160 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 8,000 meters/25,000 feet. Typical sorties are 12-20 hours each. 

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 will have over 500 MQ-1Cs.

The army has been quietly building its new force of larger UAVs for a while. Four years ago, the army quietly bought twenty Predator type UAVs (called Sky Warrior Alpha) from the same firm that manufactures the Predator and Sky Warrior. These were in Iraq for over two years, mainly for counter-IED work with Task Force Odin. The one ton Sky Warrior Alpha can carry 204.5 kg/450 pounds of sensors and 134.5 kg/300 pounds of weapons, and a few of them have fired 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.

As its model number (MQ-1C) indicates, this UAV is a Predator (MQ-1) replacement. The U.S. Air Force had planned to replace its MQ-1s with MQ-1Cs, but later decided to buy only larger Reapers. The MQ-1C was developed by the army. The third member of the Predator family is the MQ-9 Reaper. This is a 4.7 ton, 11 meter/36 foot long aircraft with a 20 meter/66 foot wingspan that looks like the MQ-1. It has six hard points, and can carry about a ton (2,400 pounds) of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, or two 227 kg/500 pound smart bombs (laser or GPS guided.) Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance is 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in ground support missions.





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