With the air war in Iraq increasingly dominated by close-air support (CAS) operations and the need to engage rapidly emerging targets in heavily populated areas, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles armed with precision weapons has also increased. Before and during Operation Iraqi Freedom, U.S. Air Force Predator UAVs routinely carried weapons, and the practice has now become an everyday part of U.S. military operations.
A resurgence of interest in the UAV for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions began in the mid-1980s, and during the Balkans wars General Atomics Gnats (from 1994) and Predators (from 1996) performed reconnaissance. During Operation Allied Force in 1999, Predators regularly flew over Kosovo, but UAV operators encountered problems when they tried to communicate precise target details to pilots of attack aircraft.
The answer lay in providing the Predator with a new sensor turret incorporating a laser designator, which an operator can use for either marking a target or guiding a weapon launched from the attack aircraft. It seemed a logical step to then arm the Predator itself. After all, if the UAV could acquire and designate the target, why then should it not launch a weapon?
Designed primarily for carrying a relatively light sensor load over a long endurance, the light and flimsy UAVs consequently cannot carry much weight in armaments. When work began in earnest on an armed Predator in mid-2000, the AGM-114 Hellfire–a laser-guided antitank missile designed for attack helicopters– seemed the obvious answer.
On Feb. 16, 2001, a USAF test crew scored a direct hit when firing an inert AGM-114C from an RQ-1L Predator using the AAS-44 turret. On August 30 an AAS-52 turret/AGM-114K Hellfire combination passed its operational trials. Predators capable of carrying weapons were redesignated MQ-1L to reflect their new multi-role capability.
The U.S. wasted no time placing an armed Predator into the field. By the end of 2001 the U.S. Department of Defense reported that its forces staged many attacks with the Predator, mostly during the Afghan campaign. The first publicized use of the armed Predator came on Nov. 4, 2002, when a UAV flying from Djibouti attacked a car in Yemen with a Hellfire, killing the six al-Qaeda suspects inside.
In late 2002 the Predator fielded a new weapon over Iraq in the form of the FIM-92E Stinger. Designed for shoulder- or helicopter launch, the air-to-air missile’s light weight made it ideal for UAVs. Predators flying over Iraq carried a Hellfire under one wing, and a pair of Stingers under the other. In January 2003 news leaked of an encounter between a Predator and an Iraqi MiG-25 fighter. In that case the MiG shot down the UAV, but the fact that the Predator could now shoot back meant that fighter pilots would treat UAVs with a greater degree of respect.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom the armed UAV came of age, as the Predators proved their worth in a new style of warfare. Able to loiter for up to 24 hours over the “area of interest,” the armed UAV could engage targets almost immediately after they emerged. In the period that has followed–now known as Operation Iraqi Freedom II–armed UAVs have regularly flown close air support for ground forces. During the set piece battle of Fallujah in April/May 2004 as many as 15 UAVs, including armed Predators, flew over the city at any time.
Success with the MQ-1 has led to other medium-class armed UAVs, although, again, payload limitations restrict the type of weapons they can carry. The MQ-1 can carry about 130 pounds on each pylon, and other types typically can carry 100 pounds. They include the U.S. Army’s MQ-5 Hunter and I-Gnat ER, and the U.S. Navy’s rotary-wing RQ-8 Fire Scout.
The Army’s new Warrior ER-MP UAV– a diesel-engine version of the Predator– will have a pylon rating of 200 to 300 pounds. Along with the Hellfire and Stinger, medium-class UAVs will carry weapons such as the new Viper Strike (already tested on an MQ-5 Hunter) and BLU-108 “Skeet”-based anti-armor weapons.
Whereas developers intended such air vehicles specifically to provide ISR, with the attack mission added on as an afterthought, a new class of UAV that incorporated attack from the outset known as the “hunter-killer” began to emerge in 1999.
General Atomics’ Predator B–later designated MQ-9–is larger than its predecessor and gets its power from a 950-shp Honeywell 331-10 turboprop. As well as offering increased dash speed, endurance, onboard power and operational ceiling, the Predator B can carry up to 3,000 pounds of stores on six underwing pylons (with full Mil Std 1760 interface), an electro-optical/infrared/laser sensor turret and synthetic aperture radar.
The first Predator B flew on Feb. 2, 2001, and General Atomics built a preproduction batch for the USAF. The Air Force has evaluated at least one under operational conditions in the Central Command region.
In the “hunter-killer” role the MQ-9 loiters at high altitude using its long-range sensors to provide ISR and to detect targets. Its primary armament is the GBU-12 laser-guided bomb, but it can also carry the GBU-38 JDAM, CBU-105 sensor-fused weapon, Hellfire, JSOW small diameter bomb and Maverick. Other compatible weapons include the AIM-9X and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, the latter guided either by a fighter’s radar or by the UAV’s own radar.
As munitions have become smaller and more robust, forces can now arm smaller UAVs with weapons such as the BLU-108 submunition and the CLAW (clean lightweight area weapon). UAV types such as the RQ-2 Pioneer, the RQ-7 Shadow 200 and the Sentry HP are being considered as weapons platforms. The latter type–a 325-pound UAV–demonstrated the successful delivery of the 80-pound BLU-108 against armored targets in September 2004.
Militaries want the ability to put a small weapon in a precise location, in a short space of time and without endangering flight crew. The technology to satisfy that desire has arrived.