Warplanes: UAV Bottlenecks


September 26, 2008:  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 each.

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.




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