The U.S. Army
and Air Force are upset that they cannot get new UAVs fast enough, and in large
enough quantities. The most successful UAV has been the Predator (and its
derivatives, the Reaper and Sky Warrior). One company, General Atomics, makes
them all, and has so far produced 300 Predators and 50 Reapers. Most of these
went to the U.S. Air Force, although there have been some exports, and the CIA
has its own small fleet of Predators. General Atomics says they are keeping up
with demand, and the air force admits that it also has problems with supplying
enough operators and satellite bandwidth (General Atomics is responsible for
neither of those items). The military is currently getting only 56 percent
(about a thousand sorties a month) of the Predators and Reapers sorties over
Iraq and Afghanistan, and expects to reach 62 percent (about 1200 sorties) by
the end of the year.
The MQ-1 Predator UAV has evolved into a family of three aircraft. The
original Predator is a one ton aircraft that is 27 feet long with a wingspan of
49 feet. It has two hard points, which usually carry one (107 pound) Hellfire
each. Each hard point can also carry a Stinger air-to-air missile. Max speed of the Predator is 215 kilometers
an hour, max cruising speed is 160 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 25,000
feet. Typical sorties are 12-20 hours
The MQ-9 Reaper is a 4.7 ton, 36 foot long aircraft with a 66 foot
wingspan that looks like the MQ-1. It has six hard points, and can carry 1,500
pounds of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two
Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, two 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.
The MQ-1C Sky Warrior weighs 1.5 tons, carries 300 pounds of sensors
internally, and up to 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. Sky
Warrior has a wingspan 56 feet and is 28 feet long. The Sky Warrior can land
and take off automatically, and carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two
on the Predator).
As its model number (MQ-1C) indicates, Sky Warrior is a Predator (MQ-1)
replacement. The U.S. Air Force plans to replace its MQ-1s with MQ-1Cs. Sky
Warrior enters production next year, and the U.S. Army (which paid for
development) wants over 500. So far, the attrition rate of Predators has been
over five percent a year. Unless that can be brought down, few individual
Predators will last more than a decade and the MQ-1C will replace it gradually.
Most of the losses are due to mechanical, electronic, software or operator
failure. Never have so many UAVs been used so extensively, and intensively, in
combat. So it's a learning experience in a new environment. The attrition rate
is coming down, but not rapidly.