Warplanes: The Shadow Of Your Hellfire


December 18,2008: The U.S. Army has successfully tested a lightweight laser designator for its RQ-7B Shadow 200 UAV. This enables the UAV to carry and fire a Hellfire missile, which it recently did successfully. Technically, the Shadow should not be able to carry a Hellfire, as the UAV weighs 186 pounds empty (no fuel or sensors), and nearly 350 pounds when taking off with 80 pounds of fuel and up to a hundred pounds of sensors. By carrying less fuel (and staying in the air for about three hours, instead of six), the Shadow can carry a vidcam, laser designator and one Hellfire. Since the Shadow has to operate within 50 kilometers of its base station, and has a cruise speed of 148 kilometers an hour, you can have one standing by, loaded with a Hellfire, if some other UAV spots a target in need of prompt attention

Earlier this year, a lightweight satellite communications system was also approved for use in the RQ-7. This enables control via an operator back in the United States. These two devices are already used in the much heavier MQ-1 Predators (which weigh a ton and can carry 450 pounds of sensors and communications equipment.) The laser designator enables the RQ-7 to designate targets for air force aircraft carrying the more accurate laser guided bombs.

The Shadow UAVs are eleven feet long and has a wingspan of 12.75 feet. It can fly as high as 19,000 feet (out of range of small arms). While the RQ-7 is going to be replaced by the RQ-1C in the next few years, there is an enormous demand for UAVs just now. So the RQ-7s will be worked hard (they have already flown nearly 400,000 hours), and will probably be heavily used until worn out or lost in action.

The army and air force are cooperating on developing and maintaining the Predator replacement, the slightly larger (1.4 ton), and more capable, MQ-1C Sky Warrior. The air force will be operating their Sky Warriors from the United States, using the satellite communication capability, and is trying to convince the army that this would be they way for them to go.

Keeping the operators back in the U.S. is called "reach back" and is increasingly popular with the military. It's expensive, time consuming, and often dangerous, to send people to a combat zone. Inexpensive satellite communications, and increasing use of computers, has allowed more and more support troops to be left behind. It works, even though it does prevent some face-to-face opportunities. This has not been a problem. And even when it is, the military is increasingly using video conferencing.

The army is also developing UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles), and these could be run by stateside operators as well. All this is part of the trend towards increasing automation and remote-control in warfare. Combat has increasingly become a matter of issuing the command; "send in the droids," and leave the people at home.




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