February 8, 2024:
Swarms of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have provided a new form of target detection and assignment of targets to weapons within range and available for use, similar to Ukrainian artillery fire control software first used in combat at the onset of the 2022 Russian invasion. This is another new capability made possible by new technologies and combat situations where these novel combinations of capability and opportunity appear. The use of these new UAVs and UAV tactics in Ukraine will establish new combat techniques that did not exist previously.
The Ukraine War was unique in that it was an unexpected opportunity to use a lot of military equipment and technology that had become available over the last half century. In that time there was no near-peer war going on where both sides could use the new weapons and systems. Ukraine changed all that and both Russians and Ukrainians sought to find more effective ways to use these unexpected and often novel opportunities to kill each other in new ways. This is a common phenomenon in all wars, especially those of the 20th and 21st centuries.
One of the more unexpected opportunities was the widespread use of cheap UAVs equipped with cheap, lightweight, and reliable communications using video cameras and other sensors. This sort of technical evolution turning into revolutionary applications is nothing new. This is what happened in the 1990s when large UAVs like the half-ton Predator equipped with new sensors and communications suddenly became essential items of equipment for the military.
This evolution has become more common during the last three decades and the process accelerated in Ukraine. There were other examples of this in recent conflicts that were not near-peer but were intense. One example occurred in 2009 when the U.S. Army received the first production models of its Sky Warrior MQ-1C UAVs. In 2008, two of the prototypes were sent to Iraq for testing. That was a success, and by 2010 four MQ-1Cs were operating in Iraq, supplanting the smaller Shadow 200s. Four MQ-1Cs were also sent to Afghanistan. The MQ-1Cs cost $8 million each but went down to $6 million as mass production got underway.
The MQ-1Cs are slightly larger Predators and were used for missions formerly performed by Shadow 200, and other large army UAVs. The big difference is that Sky Warrior can carry weapons, usually Hellfire missiles. Suddenly the army was using missile-firing, fixed-wing combat aircraft, something it has not been able to do for many decades after the U.S. Air Force was created out of the old U.S. Army Air Force in the late 1940s. The air force accepted, initially, that unmanned aircraft were not the sole preserve of the air force, and the army took that and built a new drone air force for itself.
The air force was not happy when the army soon had a large force of armed UAVs. Many air force generals now believed the army should not have the MQ-1C, or at least not use them with weapons. That has already caused some spats in the Pentagon over the issue, but a recent purge and reshuffle of the senior air force leadership, by the Secretary of Defense, makes it appear that the army will be left alone to build its new robotic air force. At least for the moment.
Back in the 1950s, after a decade of bickering, the Department of Defense ordered the army to stick with helicopters, while the air force got all the fixed wing aircraft. But UAVs do not use pilots and the army does not consider UAVs part of the half century old deal. But suddenly the army is again flying armed aircraft, in addition to the armed helicopters they have always had. The army argument is that these larger UAVs work better for them if they are under the direct control of combat brigades. The air force sees that as inefficient and would prefer to have one large pool of larger UAVs for deployment as needed. This difference of opinion reflects basic differences in how the army and air force deploy and use their combat forces. The army has found that a critical factor in battlefield success is teamwork among members of a unit, and subordinate units in a brigade. While the air force accepts this as a critical performance issue for their aircraft squadrons, they deem it irrelevant for army use of UAVs. Seeing army MQ-1Cs doing visual and electronic reconnaissance and firing missiles at ground targets, the air force sees itself losing control of missions it has dominated since its founding in 1948.
By 2010 the army had about 200 of these larger UAVs, most of them 159 kg Shadow 200s. These carry day and night cameras, and laser designators, but usually no weapons. Most of the 500 new army heavy UAVs delivered by 2015 carried missiles. The army already had thousands of much smaller micro-UAVs used by the infantry and other ground forces. The air force was not bothered by these, as they flew too low to bother air force aircraft and were not armed.
By 2015 the army had been quietly building its new army air force for a while. In 2006 the army quietly bought twenty Predator type UAVs called Sky Warrior Alpha. All of these came from the same firm that manufactures the Predator and Sky Warrior. These were in use in Iraq for nearly three years, mainly for counter-IED work with Task Force Odin. The one-ton Sky Warrior Alpha can carry 204 kg of sensors and 136 kg weapons, and a few of them have fired Hellfire missiles. Sky Warrior Alpha was, officially, the I-Gnat ER, which was based on a predecessor design of the Predator, the Gnat-750, and an improved model, the I-Gnat, which had been in use since 1989. The I-Gnat ER/ Sky Warrior Alpha looks like a Predator but isn't. In terms of design and capabilities, they are cousins.
The MQ-1C Sky Warrior weighs 1.5 tons, carries 135 kg of sensors internally, and up to 227 kg 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 can land and take off automatically, and carry four Hellfire missiles, compared to two on the Predator, or a dozen smaller 70mm guided missiles. The original MQ-1 Predator was a one ton aircraft that had two hard points under its wing, which could carry one 49 kg Hellfire each. Max speed of the Predator was 215 kilometers an hour, max cruising speed is 160 kilometers an hour with a max altitude of 25,000 feet. Typical sorties are 12-20 hours each. A Sky Warrior company has 115 troops, 12 Sky Warrior UAVs and five ground stations. The army planned to equip each combat brigade with a Sky Warrior company.
As its model number, MQ-1C indicates, Sky Warrior is a MQ-1 Predator replacement. The U.S. Air Force had planned to replace its MQ-1s with MQ-1Cs, but later chose to buy only larger Reapers. The Sky Warrior was developed by the army, which wanted at least 500 of them.
The third member of the Predator family is the MQ-9 Reaper. This is a 4.7 ton aircraft that looks like the MQ-1. It has six hard points and can carry 680 kg. These include up to eight Hellfire missiles, two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, or two 227 kg smart bombs that are 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 in many situations. This it has done, in addition to giving army commanders and troops unprecedented aerial reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities. Small infantry units like platoons and squads have their 2 kg Raven controlled with a handheld device with a screen showing the user what the Raven video camera sees. Raven has a max range of 10 kilometers and endurance of up to 90 minutes before the battery has to be changed or recharged.