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The Weapon's Edge


Aerial Drones Bring Stealthy Devastation from Above

May 17th 2010

Military - MQ-1 Sky Warrior drone

The United States has come under significant criticism for the harm to civilians caused by unmanned drones operating in Afghanistan and occasionally across the border into Pakistan. Steps are being taken to alleviate the collateral damage and public relations concerns, steps which will also enhance rather than decrease the effective of the delivery system.

The Air Force began acquiring unmanned drones when avionics matured enough to permit the operation of such vehicles almost thirty years ago. The 15-year-old Predator started out life as the RQ-1, with the R denoting reconnaissance and the Q indicating that it was an unmanned vehicle. The mounting of Hellfire missiles meant a new designation, MQ-1 for its multipurpose role, and the hunt was on.

The MQ-1 weighs a bit more than a ton fully loaded, half of which is fuel and a pair of hundred pound Hellfire missiles, when fitted for combat missions. The turbocharged gasoline engine, a 115 horsepower Rotax 914F, is a larger version of the those used to power ultralight aircraft. The machine can fly out 400 nautical miles over a five hour period, loiter for fourteen hours over the target area, and come home with fuel to spare. The longest mission on record was just over forty hours.

The AGM-114 Hellfire is a hundred pound piece of equipment with twenty pounds of explosives meant to take out tanks and armored vehicles. This weapon was selected for ease of integration, as the control system for it was already built for weight sensitive roles such as helicopter mounting. Acquisition costs were controlled but the stealthy day and night Predator is too often in the news in connection with collateral damage due to the relatively large warhead of the Hellfire.

The MQ-1C Warrior is a natural evolution to the Predator concept. A thousand pounds heavier at takeoff, four mounting points for weapons instead of just two, and the potent Hellfire can be left at home in favor of the forty two pound GBU-44/B Viper Strike. This precision guided glide bomb is utterly silent and its weight is mostly smarts meant to deliver a two pound explosive payload precisely where needed, eliminating both its intended target and the attendant negative publicity often caused by the larger Hellfire warhead.

Simplifying operational concerns, the MQ-1C uses the common ground station, a standard system for all unmanned aerial vehicles. Operators may be shifted between platforms and missions with just weeks of training to learn new capabilities rather than months.

Logistics are also simplified and performance is improved thanks to the use of a Thielert Centurion 1.7 heavy fuel engine. This 135 horsepower turbodiesel style engine runs on the same jet fuel used by helicopters, eliminating the need to provide a special fuel store. Fuel access for the earlier gasoline powered MQ-1 has been problematic in Iraq and the slower turning diesel engines are far more durable, both improving availability and reducing maintenance costs.

There are reports of 2.0 liter 160 horsepower Centurion powered Warriors successfully operating as high as 31,000 feet, but it is unclear at this time if this is a planned upgrade for all aircraft or if it is a feature limited to the next flight of aircraft. This increased ceiling provides greater safety against heavy ground fire and missiles, but the true benefit comes in extending the aircraft's reach as a communication platform.

More than just an intelligence gathering and ordinance delivery system, the MQ-1C Warrior is also fitted as a distribution node in WIN-T – the Warfighter's Information Network – Tactical.

WIN-T, a secure, high speed communications backbone, is an upgrade to the Mobile Subscriber Equipment previously used for tactical communications. Evolving military doctrine is now full of terms like “joint network-centric knowledge based warfare”. The MQ-1C's role in this is as a low cost, rapid deployment relay point able to easily pace mechanized ground forces on the move or arrive ahead of an air strike package and remain on the scene to assess damage and monitor enemy reaction to an attack.

The era of the massive, long term land war has come and gone. The stealth, flexibility, and integration of systems like the MQ-1C permit our armed forces to act where and when they're needed, interdicting small problems before they have a chance to become large ones.

Cutting Edge News Neal Rauhauser writes on in energy, economic development, and national security. He can be found at http://strandedwind.org.

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