General Atomics Predator

The increased public awareness of the capabilities of UAVs in recent years is due almost entirely to one particular UAV – the General Atomics RQ-1 Predator – a UAV that almost defines the current capabilities of these unusual vehicles.

LSI Amber UAV

However, the Predator didn’t just emerge as a fully developed UAV, it is actually a development of the GNAT-750, which was itself developed from the Amber UAV. In the mid-1980s a company named Leading Systems Inc (LSI) began development of the Amber UAV for the Department of Defence Joint Programme Office. Although Amber showed considerable promise, it was fairly small and LSI soon realised that there was an optimum minimum size for a UAV to enable it to carry both sufficient fuel and sensors, as well as having the necessary stability to provide high quality video imagery. Consequently, in 1988 LSI began development of a scaled up development of the Amber, intended primarily for export. The new UAV first flew in the summer of 1989, but by this time LSI were in serious financial difficulties and in 1990 all its assets were purchased by General Atomics (GA), who then decided to continue development of the new UAV which they christened the GNAT-750.

GNAT-750

The GNAT-750 was powered by the same Rotax 582 engine used to power the Amber, but rather than the Amber’s high pylon mounted wing, had a more conventional low mounted wing and a much larger fuselage. The GNAT-750 was equipped with a GPS navigation system, allowing fully autonomous missions of up to 48hrs and was equipped with a stabilized FLIR camera, as well as a daylight and a low-light camera in a movable sensor turret under the nose. In 1993 the Joint Chiefs of Staff needed an of-the-shelf surveillance system to support UN peacekeepers in the war torn Former Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and purchased two GNAT-750’s, equipped with a modified sensor package. However, for various reasons, actual operations of the GNAT-750s was transferred to the CIA and although one of the aircraft was lost in late 1993, by Feb 1994 the CIA were ready to conduct surveillance operations over the FRY with the surviving UAV and eventually another leased one from a base in Albania.

GNAT-750

The main problem encountered in the operation of the GNAT-750 over the FRY was the limited range of the systems datalink – housed in a small tear-drop dome on the upper fuselage. To overcome this problem, the CIA used a Schweitzer RG-8 motor glider as a forward relay for the command and control link and the sensor data, but as the slow motor glider spent 6 hours in transit to and from its orbit area, it could only spend 2 hours on station, rather negating the benefit of the 48hrs endurance of the GNAT-750. Bad weather and difficulties with the data link over the mountainous terrain of the FRY caused a number of problems and consequently operations were curtailed earlier than planned. The two GNAT-750s were then refitted with a thermal imaging sensor and an improved SIGINT package and redeployed to Croatia in 1994, achieving a significantly more effective performance. The CIA later acquired additional GNAT-750 systems, equipping some with a high resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and using others to act as airborne datalink relays. The CIA’s activities with the GNAT-750 were eventually given the code name Lofty View.

I-GNAT

The next stage in the development of the aircraft commenced in 1997/8 when GA commenced work on an improved version of the UAV which they christened the I-GNAT (Improved GNAT). Once again this was basically a scaled-up version of the GNAT-750, with a more powerful Rotax 912 or turbocharged Rotax 914 engine, allowing it to carry an increased payload including weapons or additional reconnaissance equipment on five external hardpoints. In addition, more versatile mission planning software was also developed for the I-GNAT. In Oct 98 the I-GNAT was flying and its increased performance gave it an endurance of 48hrs and a maximum altitude of over 30,000ft. The aircraft was still controlled by a C band line of sight data link and whilst this was effective out to a range of 150 miles, but by now the next stage of the development of this UAV was already well underway.

Predator A

In Jan 1994 an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) programme to develop a Tier II Medium Altitude Endurance UAV was awarded to General Atomics. General Atomics already had the GNAT-750 series of UAVs flying, and this version was developed to eventually become the Predator A. The Predator A has the same low-wing monoplane design, consisting of a high aspect ratio wing attached to a fairly narrow fuselage and a fully articulated inverted V tail – the vehicle is constructed from carbon-epoxy / Kevlar composites. The fuselage houses both the payload and all the fuel for the vehicle. At the rear of the fuselage is an 80hp four-cylinder Rotax 912UL fuel injected four-stroke engine, driving a 4ft 11in variable pitch pusher propeller. Subsequently, the 912UL engine was replaced by a 113hp Rotax 914 four cylinder four-stroke turbocharged engine. A fixed nose mounted colour TV camera is used for remote piloting and a GPS internal navigation system is also installed. The mission equipment consists of a Northrop Grumman AN/ZPQ-1 Tactical Endurance Synthetic Aperture Radar (TESAR), developed from a system planned for the cancelled A-12 strike aircraft and a Wescam Versatron 14TS Infra Red / Electro-Optical (IR/EO) sensor turret. Line of sight control and transfer of data is accomplished by C and Ku band datalinks. However, the biggest difference in the Predator from the GNAT-750 is the addition of a Ku-band SATCOM link, with the antenna housed in a bulge above the nose.

Predator A

Development of the Predator A continued with the addition of a de-icing system and the replacement of the Wescam Versatron IR/EO sensor turret with a Raytheon AN/AAS-52(V) Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MTS) – as well as housing an IR/EO sensor, this new system incorporated a laser designator. The addition of reinforced wings also allowed the Predator to carry munitions, typically a laser guided Hellfire anti-armour missile under each wing. A number of other weapons, such as the Singer air-to-air missile, the Brilliant Anti-Tank (BAT) munition and the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) have been tested on the Predator, but the Hellfire appears to be the weapon of choice for most situations.

Predator A - packed in its 'Coffin'

Because most photographs of the Predator A show it in flight, the scale of the aircraft is often difficult to determine and in reality it is much larger than it seems. Predator A is 27ft long and has a 49ft wing span. The air vehicle was designed to break down into six primary parts and can be easily packed in container, known as a Coffin, for transportation. The Predator Ground Control Station (GCS) is housed an a 30ft x 8ft x 8ft commercial container and houses the pilot position, the payload operator position, a Data Exploitation, Mission Planning and Communications (DEMPC) position where imagery is annotated and initially exploited and a SAR workstation. The data acquired by Predator is disseminated through the Trojan Spirit II, a Special Compartmented Information (SCI) satellite communications system. This allows the transmission and receipt of secure voice and National Imagery Transmission Format (NITF) imagery data over the SATCOM link using the Joint Deployable Intelligence Support System (JDISS) and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS). Using the SATCOM link Predator can either be controlled from either the deployed CGS or from the fixed facility Main Operating Base (MOB), housed at Indian Springs Air Force Auxilliary Field (ISAFAF), northwest of Nellis AFB near Las Vegas in Nevada. Current operations appear to prefer using a forward deployed Launch and Recovery Element (LRE), of about 60 people, to prepare and launch the vehicle, before control is handed over to the MOB at ISAFAF who actually fly the mission, before handing over control back to the LRE for the actual landing. The Predator A typically needs a 5,000 x 125ft hard surface runway to take off and land. It can cruise at between 70-90kts at up to 25,000ft, but typically operates much lower to provide the best definition for its IR/EO cameras and the SAR. Endurance is around 40hrs, giving the ability to remain on station for 24hrs at 500 miles range.

Predator B

The next stage in the Predator development is the Predator B, a much larger and more capable machine. Predator B first flew on 2 Feb 01 and is powered by a Honeywell/Allied-Signal TPE-331-10T turboprop engine and although the fuselage is the same as its immediate predecessor, the wing span has been increased from 49ft to 64ft. The increased power of the turboprop engine gives the Predator B an increased maximum speed from 135mph to 240mph and although this is useful when in transit to the area of interest, the typical cruise speed remains between 70-80 mph. The biggest difference, apart from the more conventional ‘upward’ V tail, that Predator B has over the Predator A is the increased payload from 450lbs to 475lbs and the ability to take this payload up to 50,000ft for 25hrs if necessary. Another version of Predator B is available powered by a Williams FJ-442A turbofan engine, this version provides a ceiling of 60,000 with a 475lbs payload, but only for 12hrs. Other versions of the Predator have been offered, but the USAF appears to have settled on the MQ-9B Predator B as its armed Hunter-Killer UAV. The MQ-9B Predator is fitted with six stores pylons and the two innermost pylons are ‘wet’ to allow the carriage of fuel tanks if necessary, although conformal tanks are also being considered. A MQ-9B carrying two 450kg external fuel tanks and 450 kgs of munitions has an endurance of 42 hours.

The USAF has formed three reconnaissance squadrons, the 11th, 15th and 17th, to operate the Predator, all are based at ISAFAF in purpose built facilities. Current plans call for 12 complete Predator systems, with 4 UAVs assigned to each system. The Predator has seen operational service over Bosnia in 1995, the Kosovo air campaign in 1999, and over Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001. However, a recent report indicated that the Predators have proved so successful, that for the LRE teams, they have become victims of their own success and have been almost continuously deployed on operations, leading to considerable disruption in their personal lives and careers.

RAF Predator Operations

Phoenix

The British armed forces have not exactly had much success with UAV’s – to date the only UAV to enter operational service has been the ill-fated Phoenix. However, the inability of this poorly designed, unreliable and ill-equipped UAV to undertake operations in the high summer temperatures of Iraq led to MOD to approach the US about the possibility of operating the General Atomics Predator A.

Predator undergoing maintainance

The approach was obviously successful because, with almost no publicity, the RAF began to actually operate the Predator. Early in 2004 the RAF formed 1115 Flight, also based at ISAFAF, Nevada, as part of a subordinate unit to the US Air Force’s 15th Reconnaissance Squadron. The compliment of 1115 Flt is around 44 personnel, the Predators are flown by RAF GD pilots, either with a fast-jet or fixed-wing background, supported by a tri-service mix of sensor operators, including some 'ground' personnel from the intelligence branch. Data interpretation is undertaken by various intelligence specialists from the US and UK. Individuals from 1115 Flt are completely intergrated with their US colleagues operating the Predator in Iraq, as part of a US/UK Combined Joint Predator Task Force, with UK operaters acting in support of UK forces operating around the Basra area. All RAF personnel are trained alongside their US colleagues at ISAFAF and many have achieved a particularly high standard on their courses.

Predator ground control station

A report in the Sunday Times on 3 Oct 04 suggested that personnel from 1115 Flt were operating from two sites, Balad, near Baghdad and Nellis AFB, Nevada – which I suspect is actually ISAFAF which is near Nellis. At Balad they were reported to be part of the teams responsible for take-off and recovery, whilst in flight the Predators were being controlled remotely from Nellis, via satellite link. Nevertheless, although the Predator detachment at Balad are undoubtably quite capable of controlling the aircraft throughout their mission, current practice appears to favour the actual control of the 18hr+ missions being conducted from ISAFAF, which has the benefit of cutting down the number of staff in theatre.

1115 Flt personnel servicing a Predator

The personnel of 1115 Flt have gained considerable experience operating the RQ-1/MQ-1 Predator in an Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) role, which has also included the firing of an undisclosed number of Hellfire air-to-surface missiles. The high quality support 1115 Flt has provided to UK forces convinced many British Army officers that the UK simply could not wait for the arrival of the planned Watchkeeper UAV, which is not scheduled to enter service until the end of the decade, and that the UK needed their own dedicated Predators to ensure even greater support could be provided to UK forces in Afghanistan whenever it was required.

MQ-9 Predator B

As is always the case with the over-tasked, under-funded and poorly equipped UK forces, identifying where money can suddenly be found for any new equipment, not planned years ahead, is usually a show-stopper. However, rather unusually for the Treasury bean counters, because of the urgent operational nature of this case, they have agreed that future funding set aside under the Project Dabinett programme can be brought forward and used for the purchase of two MQ-9 Predator B UAVs and the necessary support equipment. The purchase of the two MQ-9 Predator B’s will include fitting the vehicles with an electro/optical sensor, a synthetic aperture radar and line-of-sight and satellite data links. The final bill for the two UAVs and support equipment is believed to total some $77 million and they are expected to have achieved an initial operating capability in the autumn of 2007 and the platforms will be delivered direct to Iraq and will be operated by eight to nine qualified crews based at Creech AFB.

Predator pilot

This is the second time that the UK has attempted to purchase the Predator, with the Treasury having turned down an earlier bid in 2006 due to their usual excuse of ‘resource shortages’ – as a basic principal the Labour government would rather give free handouts to economic migrants than ensure that UK Forces are provided with decent equipment. However, having decided to ignore the lessons learnt from the numerous previous British involvements in Afghanistan, and commit UK forces into a no-win situation in the lawless Hemland province, even the witless and enfeebled Tony Blair is beginning to realise the difficulties that the troops on the ground are facing and has been forced to actually do something effective for once. However, currently in the UK forces only the personnel of 32 Regiment Royal Artillery have operated a British owned operational UAV and, in the usual Army fashion, the ‘pilots’ are enlisted soldiers - this unit is also destined to eventually operate the Watchkeeper. In contrast, the new RAF MQ-9 Predator B’s will be flown by a commissioned aircrew officer, who will have been posted to 1115 Flt from normal flying duties. The different Army and RAF policies on what should constitute the appropriate background for UAV operators is bound to yet again focus attention on the RAF’s policy of only using expensively trained aircrew to fly the Predator. Now that the US Air Force have decided to establish a specialist UAV operators career path open to non-aircrew, I wonder how long it will be before the UK Treasury insist that the RAF also follow suit and cease mis-employing highly qualified pilots, trained to fly fast-jets at considerable expense, to actually fly UAVs when their experience is desperately needed elsewhere, particularly on the front line.

Predator B fitted with podded DB 110 RAPTOR sensor

The RAF also decided to formally establishan RAF squadron to operate these two new UAVs. 39 squadron, will comprise the current 1115 Flt, which will become A Flt, and the additional personnel, who will operate the two new MQ-9 Predator B’s, who will form B Flt. The UK has already tested the Goodrich DB-110 long-range optical sensor from their RAPTOR pod on an MQ-9 and I suspect it will not be long before this sensor appears on these UAVs.

The first of the three Predator B UAVs (ZZ220), now known as the MQ-9 Reaper, officially entered RAF service with 39 Sqn on 31 Oct 07. The MQ-9 was probably flown to its operating base in Afghanistan, probably Kandahar, in a C-17 and then re-assembled by the US team responsible for the launch and recovery of all Predators in the Afghanistan theatre. The RAF MQ-9s are fitted with the Raytheon AN/DAS-1 Multispectral Targeting System, also known as the MTS-B, and the GAASI AN/APY-8 Lynx I Synthetic Aperture Radar/Ground Moving Target Indicator (SAR/GMTI). Current reports suggest that the mix of RAF, Army and RN personnel who operate the MQ-9 have already practiced dropping the GBU-12 laser guided 500lb bomb from the UAV and are already familiar with launching the Hellfire missile from the Predator, however, at the moment the RAF appear more interested in using the MQ-9 as an ISTAR asset, as opposed to the USAF who view the vehicle as a strike weapons first, with the ISTAR task as a secondary function. The three MQ-9s will be operated by B Flt of 39 Sqn from Creech AFB, the new name for ISAFAF. Personnel from 1115 Flt will become A Flt 39 Sqn and will continue to operate the Predator A from the Predator Operations Centre (POC) at Nellis AFB in operations over Iraq in support of UK forces. The acquisition of the MQ-9 in a little over 15 months from requirement to delivery in theatre represents something of a triumph for the usually moribund UK defence procurement system, but the fact that the system had to be acquired at such short notice also serves to highlight the gap that existed in the UK’s ISTAR capability

The 1st Italian Predator

Apart from the RAF, the Italian Air Force is only other Air Force to have expressed an interest in purchasing the Predator system and currently they have six UAVs on order, with options for an unspecified additional number. The first aircraft was flown on 31 Jan 04 at Gray Butte, California, but was then written off in a crash on 7 Feb 04. The Italian Predators will be operated by the newly formed Gruppo Velivoli Teeguitati (Teleguided Vehicle Squadron) which is attached to 32 Stormo at Amendola.

Mariner Predator

The US Navy is also considering the possibility of using a version of the Predator B, known as the Mariner, to meet their Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) requirement. This new version combines the larger wings of the Altair version with the Predator B fuselage, allowing the carriage of additional internal fuel. The Mariner will be capable of 49 hour missions carrying an 800lb payload internally and up to 3,000lb externally. The payload will probably be the Raytheon SeaVue maritime surveillance radar and the AN/AAS-52 multi-spectral targeting system.

After some teething troubles fairly typical of such a complex UAV, the Predator has gone on to prove itself in many different theatres of operation as both a reliable and capable UAV. Development of the Predator is continuing and the vehicle will continue to grow in both size and capability enabling it to take on even more roles in the future.

Updated Jan 08