Warplanes: The Endless CAP


September 18, 2009:   U.S. Predator UAVs mainly fly CAPs (Combat Air Patrols). Each CAP requires 3-4 Predators (one doing the CAP, one or two in transit to the CAP area and one on the ground undergoing maintenance and repairs). Each UAV has a ground crew to take care of maintenance and repairs, as well as landings and take offs, while a smaller number are back in the United States, actually operating the UAVs.

To do this round the clock, each five CAP UAVs  requires a ground control station (GCS). One GCS is overseas, to handle takeoffs and landings. The other ground station is back in the United States, where 30 members of the squadron operate the Predator, in shifts, as it patrols. Currently, the air force has 36 MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper CAPs (31 MQ-1 and 5 MQ-9) operating in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, four of them with Reapers (one additional CAP is a British controlled MQ-9 aircraft). 

The U.S. Air Force has 11 Predator UAV squadrons operating over Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Four of these squadrons belong to the National Guard (reserves).  Each squadron has about 200 personnel (operators, maintainers, and other support troops).

The air force currently owns 137 MQ-1s and 35 MQ-9s. Another 70 MQ-1s are on order, and nearly as many MQ-9s. Last year, these UAVs flew about 151,000  hours over Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. So far in FY09 they have flown 165,000 hours. It took 12 years of service (1995-2007, including development) for the MQ-1 Predator to reach the first 250,000 hours. It took another two years (2007-2009) to fly an additional 250,000 hours (500,000 total). The air force anticipates only 13 months to reach another 250,000 hour milestone (around Spring 2010).

There are about a hundred Predators in service, and they are averaging about 200 flight hours a month. That's over three times as much air time as jet fighters get. Predators fly this is misleading. These UAVs fly 36 CAPs each day, although , each CAP may consist of multiple missions. a day over Iraq and Afghanistan.

Predators are mainly reconnaissance aircraft, but ones that are capable of carrying out a relatively new airborne mission; surveillance (keeping an eye on one patch of ground for an extended period). Surveillance missions tie up a lot of airborne hours, but yield big results on the ground, where lots of enemy activity can be observed (especially at night). The army and marines have developed new tactics to take advantage of these new reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities. As more Predators become available, the ground troops put them right to work. So far, too many Predators are not enough.

While the Predator was a reconnaissance aircraft that could carry weapons (two Hellfire missiles, each weighing a hundred pounds), the Reaper was designed as a combat aircraft that also does reconnaissance. The Reaper can carry over a ton  of GPS or laser guided bombs, as well as the 250 pound SDB, or Hellfire missiles. The Predators cost about $4.5 million each, while the Reaper goes for about $11.2 million (although that can go a lot higher depending on what kind of sensors you install).

The Reaper weighs about four times as much as a Predator, and carries sensors equal to those found in targeting pods like the Sniper XL or Litening, and flies at the same 20,000 foot altitude of most fighters using those pods. This makes the Reaper immune to most ground fire, and capable of seeing, and attacking, anything down there. All at one tenth of the price of a manned fighter aircraft. The air force will stop buying the MQ-1 as of next year, and will switch over to the Reaper.





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