Electronic Weapons: UAVs Do SEAD And Elint


May 9, 2017: The U.S. Air Force is testing, apparently successfully, installing EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment on its MW-9 Reaper UAV. One of these EW items, a RWR (Radar Warning Receiver) may become standard equipment and Reaper operators appreciate something that will warn them that hostile radar is looking at them. This sort of thing was expected to eventually happen with the Reaper, which was designed as a combat aircraft.

The MQ-9 Reaper is a 4.7 ton, 11.6 meters (36 foot) long aircraft with a 21.3 meters (66 foot) wingspan that looks like the MQ-1. It has six hard points, and can carry 682 kg (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 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.

The RWR on the Reaper should be no surprise. In 2016 the air force developed a 15 day training course for MQ-1 (Predator) and MQ-9 operators (pilots) to qualify them as “Electronic Combat Officers.” This meant that the air force is finally equipping its larger MQ-1 and MQ-9 for EW (electronic warfare) missions. These two UAVs are large enough to carry some of the electronic sensors and jammers regularly used in missions seeking electronic information (ELINT) or for combat (SEAD). U.S. Navy and Air Force commanders have long wanted to turn over SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) missions to UAVs. SEAD is the most dangerous mission for combat pilots. But until a few years ago, all these UAV projects had either been cancelled, or were headed in that direction. That appears to be changing. Details on SEAD aircraft are usually kept secret, or at least not publicized.

But it is obvious that Reaper is large enough, in theory, to also carry a pair of the latest anti-radar missiles. These are the AARGM which weighs 361 kg (794 pounds) and can detect and attack targets more than 150 kilometers away while travelling at a speed of 2,450 kilometers per hour. It is more likely that the MQ-9 and MQ-1 would carry lighter missiles that can act as decoys to divert the attention of enemy radars.

Meanwhile the air force has apparently settled on an eventual successor for the Predator. This is Avenger, which looks like a larger jet powered version of the Reaper. Avenger is 13.2 meters (41 feet) long, with a 20.1 meter (66 foot) wingspan, and built to be stealthy. The V shaped tail and smooth lines of the swept wing aircraft will make it difficult to detect by radar. There is a humpbacked structure on top of the aircraft for the engine air intake. There is an internal bomb bay to hold about a ton of weapons, sensors, or additional fuel to provide another two hours of flying time (in addition to the standard 20 hours endurance). The 4,800 pound thrust engine is designed to minimize the heat signature that sensors can pick up. Total payload is 1.36 tons (3,000 pounds) and total weight of the aircraft is nine tons. Cruising speed is 740 kilometers an hour. The Avenger is designed to fly high (up to 20,000 meters/60,000 feet) and cross oceans. Until 2009 the Avenger didn't officially exist and was a "black" (secret) program. Avenger is, like Reaper, a combat UAV that will often carry weapons as well as sensors. The air force likes the ability to arm Avenger with a smart bomb, including the 900 kg (2,000 pound) GBU-34 penetrator version. Each Avenger costs over $15 million. The Avenger B would probably be a little larger and more expensive. The air force has not yet revealed their wish list of changes for Avenger B. A UAV like Avenger would require the same kind of EW equipment carried by manned warplanes.

Meanwhile all this attention to stealth for Avenger should be no surprise. The Avenger manufacturer, General Atomics, has a division devoted to building stealth features into aircraft. This includes the world's largest indoor radar cross section testing facility. Despite the bomb bay, the Avenger is expected to be used primarily to carry ground surveillance radar, which could be mounted on the bottom of the aircraft in an aerodynamically smooth enclosure.

The U.S. Navy, and several air forces, are also looking at the Avenger as an ELINT (electronic intelligence) aircraft. The ability to carry a ton of sensors and stay in the air for twenty hours per sortie has a lot of appeal for an aircraft that is already stealthy and doesn't carry a pilot. Moreover, the Avenger can perform ELINT missions entirely autonomously, making it more difficult to detect.


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