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Predator UAVs : Over a Million
Flight Hours in Combat Operations
Since its first test flight on July 3,
1994, the Predator® has become year-after-year the unchallenged standard for
MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), capable
of remote-controlled or autonomous flight operations. The systems are
manufactured by prime contractor General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc (GA-ASI),
based in San Diego, California, an affiliate of privately held
Predator® was one of the original participants in the Department of Defense (DoD)
Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) programs, that put promising
technology on the fast track. The Predator system happened to be the first DoD
Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration UAV to transition directly to active
military service before achieving Initial Operational Capability. Since 1995,
Predator-series aircraft have been in constant day and night operations
worldwide supporting both the CIA, U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, Department of
Homeland Security (DHS)/Customs and Border Protection (CBP), NASA, Italian Air
Force, Turkish Army, and, last but not least, the Royal Air Force.
These aircraft have flown more than one million flight hours in combat and have
been deployed and used successfully in world trouble spots on five continents,
including operations in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya as well as over
three of the world’s oceans. Involved in counter-narcotics surveillance,
disaster relief, maritime and -littoral warfare, offshore naval operations,
border protection and deployed in combat missions, Predator has become part of
US strategy in operations. General Atomics' MQ-9 Reaper (originally Predator B), is a larger and more capable aircraft than the earlier MQ-1 Predator, and can be
operated from any GA-ASI ground control station. It has become the first
hunter-killer UAV designed for long-endurance and high-altitude surveillance.
A fully armed
MQ-9 Reaper taxis down an Afghanistan runway
Nov. 4, 2007. The Reaper has flown 49 combat sorties since it first began
operating in Afghanistan Sept. 25. It completed its first combat strike Oct. 27,
when it fired a Hellfire missile over Deh Rawod, Afghanistan.
The MQ-9 Reaper UAV is equipped with a
950-shaft-horsepower (712 kW) turboprop engine, far more powerful than the
Predator A (115 hp - 86 kW) piston engine, allowing the Reaper to carry 10 times
more ordnance (3,000 lbs) and cruise at twice the speed (240 KTAS) of the
MQ-1... In 2008, the New York Air National Guard 174th Fighter Wing began the
transition from F-16 piloted planes to MQ-9 Reapers, becoming the first fighter
squadron conversion to an all-UCAV attack squadron. Because of the resulting
demand for these assets, UAV programs have experienced significant growth. DOD’s
Fiscal Year 2010 budget request sought funds to continue to increase the Air
Force’s Predator and Reaper UAS programs to 50 combat air patrols by fiscal year
2011 -- an increase of nearly 300 percent since fiscal year 2007. In fact, the
U.S. Secretary of defense subsequently directed an increase to 65 combat air
patrols by 2013. Air Force officials stated that this initiative is intended to
provide an additional 100 pilots per year on a temporary basis to support the
expanding UAV programs. NATO has recently asked the U.S. Air Force to deploy
some more Predators to Libya, with all European systems being mobilized in
Afghanistan. After the Uzbin dramatic ambush, France has deployed its
experimentation two of its Harfang unmanned aircraft to provide better
protection to its own troops. For over 12 years, the French Air Force preference
has been for Reaper, a choice supported by all other operational services. A
decision is expected soon in Paris to provide a gap-filler to replace the
Harfang, (the former Heron), an outdated system that IAI never successfully sold
to Israel. Such a success strory explains why the Predator system has been an
attraction at the Paris Air Show. J. Neal Blue, GA-ASI's Chairman and CEO
answered questions for European Security in an interview conducted by
Joël-François Dumont. Le Bourget, June 21, 2011.E/S©
J. Neal Blue, GA-ASI's Chairman and CEO
European Security : Mr. Blue, you're back in Paris,
and it's not your first visit to the Paris Air Show.
J. Neal Blue : Very pleased to be back again
European Security : And you're back with a very
famous “bird,” the Predator®, isn't it?
J. Neal Blue : That's correct. The Predator
B/MQ-9 Reaper is the particular model which is the subject of greatest interest
here, and in fact, there is one on display as a result of the Department of
Homeland Security in the United States providing an actual aircraft with the
maritime surveillance capability.
The “Horus” proposal made in 1999 by
Sagem to the French MoD came after two years of discussions... 
European Security : When we first met more than
12 years ago, the Predator was not yet a success story. UAVs were not so
important as they are today. What factors or capabilities have served to elevate
the importance of UAVs to their current stature?
J. Neal Blue : The transforming factor has been
Predator's ability to provide persistent situational awareness. It's able to
stream high-definition surveillance video and radar imagery anywhere in the
world, day or night, during an airborne mission lasting up to 40 hours
unrefueled. Simply put, Predator enables you to see all the time – on a 24/7
European Security : It would seem that
Predator-series UAVs are recognized as the “gold standard” for UAVs worldwide.
Why is that?
J. Neal Blue : Well, they are proven, reliable,
multi-mission capable, and affordable. For example, the Predator B/MQ-9 Reaper
has flown over 260,000 flight hours, most of that in combat, and has the highest
operational availability rates of any U.S. Air Force aircraft, as well as by far
the lowest maintenance cost per flight hour of any comparable DoD aircraft. It
permits flexible employment as the same Predator B airframe can perform ISR,
conduct maritime surveillance, and deliver precision weapons. It's not limited
to ISR missions only. In short, Predator B/MQ-9 Reaper, like our other UAS, is a
proven and mature aircraft system, without the concerns of cost over-runs, late
deliveries, and disappointing performance often associated with the introduction
of new aircraft models.
Italy made the first foreign buy of the
Predator A in 2004 and has ordered 4 Reaper UAS in 2008.
European Security : Who is using them?
J. Neal Blue : The company's UAS are used by the
Royal Air Force, the Italian Air Force, as well as by the U.S. Air Force, U.S
Army, U.S. Navy, Department of Homeland Security, and NASA, to name a few.
A British MQ9-Reaper operated by
No. 39 Squadron RAF from
Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.
European Security : Where are they being used?
J. Neal Blue : They are being used in the U.S.
to safeguard the nation's land and maritime borders. They've provided crisis
response following Haiti's devastating earthquake, and they are flown in Italy
by the Italian Air Force. They are also protecting coalition forces
round-the-clock in various combat theaters.
“Predator® series UAS are expected to
fly nearly 500,000 flight hours this calendar year...”
European Security : By “combat theaters,” do you
mean Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya?
J. Neal Blue : All of the above, that's right.
European Security : How many flight hours have
Predator-series unmanned systems flown to date?
J. Neal Blue : Well over a million flight hours
in combat conditions. So that's substantially more than any other unmanned
aircraft system can even suggest in terms of actual experience. In fact,
Predator-series UAS are expected to fly nearly 500,000 flight hours this
calendar year alone based on current projections.
European Security : We understand that you
launched a new “next generation” UAS, the Predator C Avenger®. What is the main
difference between the Avenger and the other Predator-series UAS?
The jet-powered Predator C Avenger
follows in the footsteps of the proven Predator B/MQ-9 Reaper, adding yet
another flexible and multi-mission capability to the Predator UAS series.
J. Neal Blue : Well, Avenger's speed is a key
differentiator. It's an all-jet aircraft capable of about 400 knots with an
18-hour unrefueled airborne endurance.
European Security : When you made the decision
to put missiles on the Predator for the first time, nobody could believe it
would work. And it does work.
RQ-1 Predator from the 46th ERS landing in
J. Neal Blue : It worked rather well, and that
was on the original Predator, well before the development and deployment of the
MQ-9 Reaper, the turbo-prop variant. Today's MQ-9 Reaper safeguards coalition
forces with significantly greater precision striking power than Predator.
European Security : How many countries have
procured the Predator?
J. Neal Blue : Well, we have England of course,
and Italy. You have earlier variants with Turkey although not the most recent
variant of the Reaper. And those would be the principle external acquirers. We
are of course most interested in expanding that capability for all of the NATO
countries, including France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
European Security : The French Air Force has
been flying with the Harfang in Afghanistan. We have only one aircraft left
and we are fearing a capacity break if the decision is not made to have the
surveillance systems and services that match with other countries, Great Britain,
the United States, which cooperate all time together. How optimistic are you
that a good decision will be made in France?
J. Neal Blue : I would be optimistic because I believe there is a gap to be filled. Namely, I
think the French forces are interested in filling a gap, or an immediate need
for a reconnaissance strike capability that is otherwise not available to them.
And that doesn't preclude the separate issue of a European development of
similar or more sophisticated systems, which of course take substantial
investment and considerable time to develop.
European Security : How long do you believe it
could take to get the first deliveries?
J. Neal Blue : That's the important advantage. I
think we could achieve delivery between 12 and 18 months from the time we
receive an order. So I think that's extraordinary in terms of what any other
party might be able to deliver. And the reason for that would be our company has built on forecast a number of aircraft which enable us to
achieve the quick deliveries. Of course the question of administrative red tape
is always with us and that’s why I say it could take perhaps a year or a year
and a half to achieve deliverability. If we had all of the requisite
governmental decisions in place, that delivery could occur within a half a year.
As the demand for Predator/Gray
Eagle-series UAS has grown, GA-ASI has expanded its production facilities and
built many aircraft on forecast in advance of anticipated customer orders.
European Security : You've led General Atomics
and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. for years as Chairman and CEO of
both companies. While General Atomics is the larger parent company, how is it
that the smaller affiliated company, Aeronautical Systems, is so much better
known? Would it be the Predator success story?
J. Neal Blue : I think substantially the
Predator success story is the best known of the activities that General Atomics
companies are involved in.
European Security : Which other corporations do
you have with your group here?
J. Neal Blue : General Atomics is separate from
its affiliated company, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. Within
Aeronautical Systems, we have Aircraft and Reconnaissance Systems Groups that
produce our UAS and Lynx Multi-mode Radar, as well as pioneer sensor
developments. General Atomics' ElectroMagnetic Systems has developed the
catapult and arresting gear selected for use on the U.S. Navy's new aircraft
carrier. We have an Electronics and multiple other corporate divisions, as well
as a number of different subsidiary activities and sister companies.
European Security : You've cooperated with
Germany for six years; do you expect a new cooperation with France is on the
J. Neal Blue : We would look forward to that,
and I think from a viewpoint of the aspirations of both France and Germany, we
recognize that it is very important to have material participation by indigenous
companies. These would include local companies that might source and maintain
the systems, and also provide the long term logistics tail and future
cooperation, recognizing that today's leading technologies will obsolesce in a
European Security : Do you anticipate that
Avenger's technological advancements will assure its success?
J. Neal Blue : Well, I would say we recognize
that whether it is the Avenger or some other platform, it certainly is mandatory
to be improving the technology all the time because, as you may be quite well
aware, Moore's law is very much alive. Moore's law suggests that the amount of
information that a microchip is capable of processing doubles about every 18
months. And so on that basis, if that's characteristic of the electronic
revolution, one could easily see that today's state-of-the-art is tomorrow's
European Security : What mega-trends do you
foresee potentially impacting tomorrow's military force structure?
J. Neal Blue : I think it's fairly clear to
begin with understanding what kind of a military force structure constitutes the
capability to succeed and endure in a particular endeavor. And it's quite clear
that the budgets worldwide which will be available to support military force
structures are likely to be less than they have been historically, and therefore
we're going to have to rely much more on advanced technology to substitute for
reduced manpower and reduced expenditure on long-lead, costly government
European Security : A couple of years ago, some
people were suggesting that manned and unmanned aircraft would not complement or
work well together. The accumulated evidence suggests quite the opposite.
J. Neal Blue : That's absolutely true and I
think the future of the military force structure suggests very close
coordination between the manned platforms and the unmanned platforms. The
unmanned platforms of course offer material advantages in terms of cost and
sustainability. And so the yield from an unmanned platform capable of long
endurance can become decisive.
For example, in the case of the Libyan engagement, it is quite clear that the
fast movers, the fighter planes of today, the manned fighter planes, are capable
of taking out targets with precision if only they know where the targets are.
But they are not reconnaissance vehicles. And in fact, a fast-moving jet fighter
plane has to be refueled within less than two hours.
And so, you need the capability of persistent endurance, 24/7 surveillance,
with a concomitant strike capability based upon laser or GPS precision systems.
Unmanned Aerial Systems Roadmap (Page H6)
 GA-ASI can
neither confirm, nor deny the organizations listed as using Predator-series
Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2010-2035
National Strategy for Homeland Security" (PPT).
Retrieved September 26, 2010.
NASA Supports UAS Fire Mapping Efforts on California Fire (11 June 2006).
Italia acquisirà 4 UAV Predator B/Reaper (Difesa News) 189 february 2008.
fights remote control war (BBC : 6 June 2008) and
New Reaper Squadron (RAF : 13 May 2011).
U.S. Deploys Drones Against Somali Pirates
Factsheets : MQ-9 Reaper (Source : Inside AF.mil)
Factsheets : MQ-1B Predator (Source : Inside AF.mil)
 With UAVs,
the future has arrived :
Rise Of The Droids
Afghanistan : Retour à la guerre classique ?
Harfang en Afghanistan : l’heure du bilan
Les drones au 43ème Salon du Bourget (HORUS proposal in 1999 made by SAGEM
to deliver a French version of the Predator B UAV).
Germany, Italy make initial requests for MQ-9 Reaper (Handelsblatt,
Related papers :