TRW/IAI BQM-155/RQ-5 Hunter

BQM-155A Hunter

The successful use of UAV’s by the Israeli Army in the 1980’s created huge interest and the US Army was quick to appreciate the potential benefits of deploying a tactical UAV. By the late 1980’s the various requirements of the US Army, US Navy and US Marine Corps had been organised into a number of programs for different UAVs, one of which was for a short-range battlefield surveillance and target acquisition UAV known as the UAV-SR. In 1989 the McDonnell-Douglas Sky Owl and the TRW/IAI Hunter were selected for the final stage of the UAV-SR competition which eventually began in Mar 1991. In Jun 1992 the Hunter was declared the winner of the competition and this was followed in Feb 1993 by a contract for seven complete Hunter systems, with an average of eight UAVs in each system. The complete programme was estimated to cost about $1.2 billion for the development and procurement of 50 systems, including 400 Hunter UAVs and associated equipment.

BQM-155A Hunter

The Hunter is based on the Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) Impact UAV and was known originally as the Joint Improved Multimission Playload Aerial Surveillance Combat Survivable (JIMPACS) – a dreadful acronym which thankfully was soon dropped. The Hunter was given the official designation BQM-155A and is a fairly simple design, powered by two 60hp Moto-Guzzi two cylinder piston engines driving front and rear propellers in a ‘push me – pull you’ configuration. Hunter was designed to take-off from improvised airstrips, but can also be equipped for booster-assisted zero length launches. Fitted with a GPS navigation system, the Hunter’s primary payload is the Multi-Mission Optronic Payload (MOSP) developed by IAI, this includes a TV/FLIR sensor allowing day/night operations and a data relay system. Other payloads have included a laser designator, ECM jamming equipment and a variety of communication systems, allowing the vehicle to act as an airborne communications relay. Mission radius is about 80nm, the limit of the data relay system, but this can be extended to about 160nm if a second Hunter is used as an airborne relay. Typical endurance is about 12 hours and the Hunter can fly autonomous missions, or be controlled from a ground station. The Hunter lands conventionally or engages an arrestor wire and has a parachute for an emergency descent.

BQM-155A Hunter

Low rate initial production began in January 1993, the first production Hunter flew in Feb 1994 and the first system was delivered in May 1994 with the designation BQM-155. However, the operational evaluation of the Hunter was little short of a disaster and seven Hunters were lost in crashes. It is believed that during this time inexperienced non-aircrew Army personnel flew the Hunter, but whether this had a bearing on the high accident rate is not known. It is believed that the accidents were the result of flight control software errors and unreliable engines. The cost of the programme had by this time risen to $2.1 billion and serious concerns were being expressed about the ability of the Hunter to achieve its design goals. The vehicle experienced difficulty transmitting video imagery during relay operations, failed to meet Army time standards for artillery adjustments and was unreliable. Furthermore, the Hunter system, including all the associated spares and support vehicles, was far too large to fit in the number of airlift aircraft specified for moving one system. As a result of the poor performance of the UAV and cost overruns, it was decided in Jan 1996 to cancel the remainder of the programme and put the majority of the 62 surviving Hunters together with the seven support systems in storage. This was a devastating decision that could well have spelled the complete end of the Hunter UAV programme. However, in Feb 1996 it was decided to continue flying a couple of the remaining Hunters at Fort Hood and Fort Huachuca in support of Army and Joint operations and training. As experience operating the Hunter grew, the system became more reliable and in Jul 1994 the Hunter flew nearly 200 hours in support of tactical warfighter training at the National Training Centre at Fort Irwin, California. In August 1994 a Hunter was used as a testbed for laser designator demonstration followed the next month by demonstrating its ability to carry a variety of payloads at the Joint Command and Control Warfare Centre. As a result of these demonstrations, Congress agreed to provide $12 million to remove three Hunters systems from storage to allow the Army to continue development and testing.

BQM-155A Hunter

In April 1999 a number of Hunter systems were removed from storage for operational use in Kosovo and the vehicle was re-designated the RQ-5A – a number of the UAVs were fitted with a laser designator for operations in the Balkans. At least four Hunters were shot down during operations in Kosovo, mainly to Serbian Strela-10 (SA-( Gaskin) missiles. In the first three months of Operation Allied Force, the Hunters flew over 600 hours during a 30-day period providing NATO forces with real-time imagery - two aircraft operated in tandem, enabling data to be relayed back to the ground stations from a considerable distance away. By mid-May 1999 the Hunter had accumulated 800 hours flight time and by the end of FY 99 this had risen to 3,500 hours. Since that time the Hunter had accumulated a further 3,000+ hours flight time in operations over the Balkans in support of continuing NATO operations. The Hunter was deployed to Iraq in March 2003 and at least two have been lost in crashes. In total, by Aug 2005 the Hunter had accumulated over 14,000 operational flight hours over the Balkans and Iraq – not bad for a system that was effectively cancelled.

BQM-155A Hunter

The Hunter GCS-3000 Ground Control Station is manned by two operators who occupy a pilot control bay and an observer control bay – an additional navigation control bay is equipped with a digital map display that displays the flight path and monitors the progress of the mission. There is also the option of installing an intelligence bay within the GCS-3000 that can provide data processing and distribution facilities. A Compact Ground Control System (CGCS) can be installed in a small ship, or forward deployed in a tactical environment or used to support airborne operations. The Hunter system has also been sold to Belgium and France. In Aug 2005, in response to a US Army requirement for an Extended Range / Multi-Purpose (ERMP) UAV, an enhanced multi-mission version of the RQ-5A, known as the MQ-5B Hunter II, took to the air for the first time. The Hunter II is a version of the IAI Heron Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV, offering greater endurance (15 hours v 12 hours) and higher operating altitude (18,000ft v 15,000ft). The MQ-5B also features upgraded avionics and has a diesel engine, which it is hoped will enable it to climb faster and spend less time being serviced.

BQM-155A Hunter

However, although the vehicle can carry and deploy a version of the Northrop Grumman Brilliant AntiTank (BAT) submunition, known as Viper Strike, that is capable of destroying a BMP combat vehicle or disabling a tank, the wings do not allow the vehicle to carry an air-to-ground missile, such as the Maverick. In addition, the Hunter lacks a SATCOM capability, which would allow the vehicle to operate at its maximum range without having another Hunter to act as a relay. None of these capabilities were thought necessary for a short-range tactical UAV like Hunter, but the lack of these capabilities has limited the employment of this UAV, particularly when compared to the Predator.

In Aug 05 it was announced that a version of the General Atomics MQ-9 Predator, known as the Warrior, had won the ERMP competition and when it enters service in 2007 it will add considerable capability to the current US Army UAV fleet. In the meantime the US Army is looking at ways of upgrading the Hunter fleet to the E-Hunter configuration with longer wings, a 30hr endurance and an increase in the payload to 2,400lbs. The US Army has set aside $4.5 million for the E-Hunter upgrade and this would be sufficient to upgrade three or four vehicles.

BQM-155A Hunter

Considering the inauspicious start the RQ-5A had at the start of its service, it has gone on to perform well in the Balkans and Iraq. Like their colleagues in the US Air Force and Navy, the US Army has quickly grasped how essential it is to have a modern ISTAR UAV available to units deployed on operations. The RQ-5A Hunter has proved its worth in operations and will remain in service far longer than even the most optimistic observer would ever have dare predicted.