Paris Air Show

The Revolutionary but Thorny U.S. Predator-Reaper Program

 - June 13, 2015, 7:40 AM
The jet-powered and stealthy Predator-C has been deployed by the U.S. on a classified program, and is also proposed by GA-ASI for the US Navy UCLASS requirement. (Photo: GA-ASI)

Controversy is never absent from the U.S. Predator/Reaper program. Perhaps that is inevitable, with such a revolutionary capability. But 20 years after the first Predator went into service, the issues remain numerous and persistent. Some of them have now been given the Hollywood treatment, in the newly-released film Good Kill.

For a mass audience, that film explores the moral and ethical issues of remotely-controlled warfare. But it also features the ongoing jurisdictional debate over CIA versus U.S. military operational control, and the motivation and training problems that beset the MQ-1/9 program. Other issues that occupy program officials and observers include the ‘data deluge’ from persistent UAV operations that overwhelms the analysts; procurement procedures; exportability; airworthiness; and the vulnerability of the platform in anything other than a benign air defense environment.

Summing up the way this program has evolved, Lt. Gen. Bob Otto, U.S. Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) said recently: “Crisis has become the steady state.” Speaking at an AFA breakfast meeting in Washington, Otto noted that “the unconstrained demand for ISR” can never be met. He recalled that when there were 11 full-motion video (FMV) combat air patrols (CAPs) over Iraq in 2005-07, Centcom commanders complained they were meeting only a third of their requirement. “Now we have 65 CAPs, yet Centcom says they are still only meeting 21 percent of the requirement,” he pointed out.

The shortage of UAV pilots has been much discussed by the U.S. military leadership in recent months. In January, U.S. Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh described the problem in stark terms: “We can only train about 180 people a year and we need 300-a-year trained, and we’re losing about 240 from the community each year.” His MQ-1/9 pilots currently fly six days in a row and work 13-14 hour days on average. The service has doubled their incentive pay. Instructors are also in short supply: the training squadrons at Holloman AFB are one-third short of their assigned manpower levels. The U.S. Army has similar problems, although somewhat mitigated by the use of enlisted personnel as pilots.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) reported last March that its family of UAVs logged one million flight hours between 1994 and 2010. In the next four years, they amassed a further two million hours. The family now includes the U.S. Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle (152 on order) as well as the MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers flown by the CIA; the Department of Homeland Security (DHS); NASA; the U.S. Air Force; and the air forces of France, Italy and the UK.

GA-ASI produced 248 Predators for the U.S. Air Force between 1994 and 2011. About 140 of them are still in service; the other 100 have been written off in landing and other accidents, and a few shoot-downs. Their service life has been extended to at least 20,000 hours, based on non-destructive inspection of high-time aircraft.

Introduced in 2001, the larger Reaper has a much better safety record. The U.S. Air Force fleet of MQ-9s is now nearing 200, and GA-ASI continues to produce three per month, with the capacity to double that rate if required. The Air Force wants to phase out the Predators and buy a total of 346 Reapers by 2019. That plan has been criticized by the Pentagon’s own inspector general. Recent budget documents quote a planned total spend of over $6.6 billion on Reaper procurement, of which $4.5 billion will have been disbursed by the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2015. The total includes sensors, communications equipment, weapon kits, ground control stations, simulators and other training devices, as well as spares and contractor support. Most of this is supplied by GA-ASI, including the Lynx surveillance radar, although Raytheon supplies the primary Multispectral Targeting System MTS-B EO/IR sensor and laser designator (improved DAS-2 version on the Army’s Gray Eagles). Raytheon also offered an alternative ground station, without success. L-3 Com supplies the datalinks.

The Pentagon has spent a further $966 million on RDT&E to upgrade the MQ-9 alone, with another $616 million planned. It will cost an additional $2 billion to modify in-service aircraft. The long list of desired improvements to the Reaper, some of which are underway or already implemented in the Block 5 version, includes:

  • Extended-range kits to boost endurance without weapons from 27 to 33-35 hours, through external fuel tanks. The Mtow is increased from 10,500 lbs to 11,700 lbs. Alcohol water injection is used to shorten takeoff length, especially from hot-and-high airfields. Seventy-two kits have been funded through FY2015. GA-ASI is additionally offering a 13-foot wing extension to further increase the fuel capacity.
  • Anti-icing provision on the wings, tails, and engine inlet.
  • Automatic takeoff and landing system (ATLS)–already a standard feature of the Army’s Gray Eagles.
  • Redundant avionics and a redesigned forward avionics bay.
  • High-definition camera upgrade to the MTS-B sensor, and addition of the “step-stare” function that converts FMV to still-frame imagery.
  • Lynx radar improvements to both SAR and GMTI modes, including the ability to identify dismounted (e.g. small) targets, which has proved difficult with the current version from higher altitudes.
  • Datalink upgrades, including compliance with the common data link (CDL), encryption, secure voice communication and IP networking. The status of a plan to migrate from commercial Ku-band satcom to military Ka-band satcom is unclear.
  • Navigation and electrical systems upgrades.
  • Improvements to the sensor/stores management computer.
  • MIL-STD-1760 weapons data bus.
  • Integration of new weapons such as new AGM-114 Hellfire variants, GBU-12/38/49/54 guided bombs and Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) variants.
  • Hardware and software upgrades to the ground control station, including multi-aircraft control in transit, new LINUX processors, high-definition monitors, open systems architecture and ergonomic improvements, resulting in new Block 30 and 50 standards (the latter is called the “Advanced Cockpit” by GA-ASI).
  • Airworthiness certification.

This last item is currently a major activity for GA-ASI. It is redesigning the Reaper structure for protection against icing and lightning strikes, and for a defined fatigue life. The flight and ground control software is being requalified to certification standards. The first flight of the “certifiable Reaper” is scheduled for late next year.

Meanwhile, the company has been flying its own Due Regard Radar (DRR) together with a TCAS II collision avoidance system on an Ikhana (the NASA version of the Reaper, which, it should be noted, GA-ASI continues to call the Predator-B). A pre-production DRR flew in February, when GA-ASI said that it was “the first fully functional air-to-air radar” on a UAV that meets the requirements for “due regard” operations in international airspace. The company added that its sense-and-avoid system was “ready for a customer to conduct an operational test and evaluation.”

In February the U.S. government issued a new policy on the exportability of various unmanned systems. These were previously constrained by the U.S. desire to adhere to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a diplomatic agreement among 34 countries, as well as Washington’s perennial concerns about the export of sensitive and advanced technology.

Meanwhile, GA-ASI has been flying an unarmed export version of the MQ-1 for almost a year. The Predator XP has now been licensed for sale to countries in the Middle East, North Africa, South America and Asia. It includes a FLIR Systems Star Safire FMV camera, Lynx multimode radar, satcom, the automatic identification system (AIS) for maritime patrol, the automatic take-off and landing system, and triple-redundant avionics. The first production aircraft is due for delivery next year–probably to the UAE.

European Accord

The larger and more capable Reaper has been exported only to France, Italy and the UK. European angst at the lack of a home-grown competitor to the American product (and its Israeli analogue, the IAI Heron) finally resulted last month in a tri-nation agreement to fund a project definition study for a ‘Euro-MALE’ (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) UAS. But GA-ASI continues to press the merits of the Reaper to Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, all of which have near-term requirements that may not wait for the Euro-MALE in the early 2020s.

Predators and Reapers have been the platforms for the development and fielding of various additional sensors, some of them exotic. They include the BAE/Exelis/SNC Gorgon Stare wide-area motion imagery (WAMI) sensor pod that was first fielded on the MQ-9 in 2011, and two Raytheon ACES-HY hyperspectral sensor pods that are being tested on the MQ-1. A plan to equip many of the UAVs with the Northrop Grumman Advanced Signals Intelligence Payload (ASIP) was scaled back. The ASIP-1C version was fielded on some MQ-1s. The COMINT-only ASIP-2C version was slated for the MQ-9, but has not been approved for fielding. A Raytheon electronic attack payload has been tested on the Gray Eagle.

Over Iraq and Afghanistan, and then Yemen, Somalia, Syria and elsewhere, the Predators and Reapers have roamed with relative impunity. But if they fly too low, they become vulnerable to anti-aircraft guns, and they would be sitting ducks if flown against a comprehensive air defense system that includes airborne interceptors. In Gen. Otto’s opinion, “We’re over-invested in permissive ISR, versus contested environments.”

The response from GA-ASI was to privately fund development of the jet-powered and semi-stealthy Predator-C. It first flew in April 2009, with a larger version following in January 2012. A small but unknown number have since been deployed by the U.S. in a program that remains classified. The U.S. Congress has added funding for GA-ASI to demonstrate integration of the UTA Aerospace Systems MS-177 multispectral sensor on the Predator-C. Meanwhile, GA-ASI has proposed the jet-powered drone for the U.S. Navy’s unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike system (UCLASS), which is having a troubled gestation.