Murphy's Law: Excellent Gear, But No Thanks


February 13, 2021: In early 2020 Russia announced that its 20-ton jet-powered Okhotnik (Hunter) stealth UAV successfully dropped unguided bombs from its internal bomb bay. This was not a prelude to Hunter dropping smart bombs or guided missiles, but rather the first step in using Hunter with unguided bombs and fire control systems that can put unguided bombs on target very effectively. Not as accurately as GPS guided bombs, but at much less cost per bomb. Russia made heavy use of these modern computerized fire control systems in Syria where Russia gave its latest GPS and laser guided smart bombs a lot of combat experience. While Russia was known to have such guided bombs and missiles, the West was surprised to discover how few of them the Russians had stockpiled.

Many details of how Russia uses its annual defense budget are still top-secret and that included how few of these modern guided bombs Russia actually purchased. Russia could not afford a large stockpile of such expensive weapons. The Syrian experience also revealed that Russia had kept up on developing computerized fire control systems for using unguided bombs. These types of fire control systems were increasingly common in Western air forces during the 1980s and 90s but were eclipsed as smart bombs and guided missiles largely replaced unguided bombs, at least in fighter-bombers, after 2001. American pilots still used these systems for the rare occasions that an F-16 was allowed to carry out a strafing mission with its autocannon. Currently such missions are avoided because they are too risky, especially when the F-16 can deliver a laser guided missile at a target while flying above any ground fire. Often these strafing attacks are about demoralizing the enemy than trying to kill them all.

The stealthy Okhotnik is also being tested to see if it can perform as a UAV to accompany the Su-57, Russia’s first stealth fighter, on attack missions against well-guarded and vital targets, like air defense systems. Western air forces are developing the same capability as is China. The Su-57 is way behind schedule and not yet accepted for service. It is possible that Okhotnik may never see service. In the West, a lot of stealthy jet-propelled UAVs have been developed but few have entered service in any capacity.

A good example of that is the General Atomics large UAV that performed well but did not see wide acceptance. The development of the jet-propelled Avenger began after September 11, 2001. The first flight was supposed to have been in 2007 but technical problems kept coming up. Apparently, it was worth the wait, as the U.S. Navy was impressed and particularly interested in using Avenger to replace the soon-to-be-retired EA-6Bs in their most dangerous attack missions. The air force liked the ability to arm Avenger with a smart bomb, including the 900 kg (2,000 pound) GBU-34 penetrator version. The navy and air force also developed other jet-powered UAVs and software that allowed them to land by themselves, including on an aircraft carrier.

Russia was also late when it came to developing and using armed UAVs like the one-ton American Predator, which entered service in the late 1990s. The five-ton Reaper followed in less than a decade. Meanwhile Russia just got its Predator clone into service, along with laser guided missiles similar to American designs. The Russian Reaper is still in development and not expected to make its first flight until 2023 or later. The jet-powered Okhotnik made its first flight in 2019 and is based on several earlier jet-powered UAV designs that were dropped.

General Atomics, creator and manufacturer of Predator and Reaper, developed Avenger and, not surprisingly, it looked 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 holding 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. Avenger took its first flight in early 2009. 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. Each Avenger costs about $15 million.

The Avenger has been combat-ready for several years but neither the air force or the navy is interested enough to adopt it, despite the stealth qualities of Avenger and the fact that it has already flown for over 14,000 hours reliably and shown it can deliver weapons.

All this attention to stealth should be no surprise. 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 its internal bomb bay, the Avenger was 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's interest in Avenger first became known at the beginning of development. Avenger wings can be built to fold for use on carriers and have a tailhook needed for carrier landings. The Avenger uses landing gear from the F-5, an aircraft of the same weight class. The naval version came to be called the Sea Avenger. The navy did not buy Avenger and turned to new designs, including MQ-25A, which will be used mainly for inflight refueling of manned fighters that need more range.

The navy, and several air forces, also considered using 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. General Atomics believes it can get the Avenger to operate (takeoff and land) from a carrier before any of the other contenders (mainly the 19-ton X-47). The Avenger weighs less than half as much and has an exemplary track record.

In 2011 the U.S. Air Force decided to take a shortcut in developing its next-generation tactical reconnaissance UAV (MQ-X) and simply adopt a beefed-up version of the existing Avenger ("Predator C"). This jet-powered aircraft was developed privately by General Atomics as its candidate for MQ-X. The air force bought one Avenger and sent it to Afghanistan. Several years of Avenger test flights were encouraging enough for the air force to adopt Avenger as the base design for MQ-X. This was supposed to lead to Avenger B which would probably be a little larger and more expensive than the original. The air force never revealed their wish list of changes for Avenger B and air force interest did not last as the air force decided to put off jet-powered UAV development. That did not last and the air force turned to the establishment of warplane manufacturers (Lockheed and Northrop Grumman) for stealthy, jet-powered UAVs. In 2016 Avenger was used, apparently by the CIA, in Syria to drop pamphlets. But since then, there has been little to report other than the 2018 Russian announcement that it was designing its own version of Avenger. At this point, Russia may be paying more attention to China than the United States. China is a major exporter of Predator and Reaper clones and is also working on jet-propelled models. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force is ending Reaper purchases at 337 aircraft because Reaper is considered too vulnerable in a conventional war. The Reaper replacement has not been selected yet. China continues to sell lots of Predator and Reaper clones, as does Israel, Russia and Turkey. Israel was the pioneer in this area and General Atomics was the only American firm to pay close attention and adopt Israeli UAV concepts. Israel has not yet put any jet-powered UAVs into service.




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