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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 General Atomics. Predator® was one of the original participants in the Department of Defense (DoD) Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) programs,[1] 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,[2] U.S. Air Force, Army,[3] Navy, Department of Homeland Security (DHS)/Customs and Border Protection (CBP),[4] NASA,[5] Italian Air Force,[6] Turkish Army, and, last but not least, the Royal Air Force.[7] 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,[8] 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),[9] is a larger and more capable aircraft than the earlier MQ-1 Predator,[10] 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.[11] 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,[12] France has deployed its experimentation two of its Harfang unmanned aircraft to provide better protection to its own troops.[13] 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 indeed.

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... [14]

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 basis.

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.[6]

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.[7]

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 Tallil Air Base, Iraq

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;[15] do you expect a new cooperation with France is on the horizon?[14]

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 few years.

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 obsolete technology.

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 projects.

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.

[1] See Unmanned Aerial Systems Roadmap (Page H6)

[2] GA-ASI can neither confirm, nor deny the organizations listed as using Predator-series aircraft.

[3U.S. Army Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2010-2035

[4] National Strategy for Homeland Security" (PPT). Retrieved September 26, 2010.

[5] NASA Supports UAS Fire Mapping Efforts on California Fire (11 June 2006).

[6] Italia acquisirà 4 UAV Predator B/Reaper (Difesa News) 189 february 2008.

[7] How UK fights remote control war (BBC : 6 June 2008) and New Reaper Squadron (RAF : 13 May 2011).

[8] U.S. Deploys Drones Against Somali Pirates

[9] Factsheets : MQ-9 Reaper (Source : Inside AF.mil)

[10] Factsheets : MQ-1B Predator (Source : Inside AF.mil)

[11] With UAVs, the future has arrived : The Rise Of The Droids

[12] Afghanistan : Retour à la guerre classique ?

[13] Harfang en Afghanistan : l’heure du bilan

[14] Les drones au 43ème Salon du Bourget (HORUS proposal in 1999 made by SAGEM to deliver a French version of the Predator B UAV).

[15] Germany, Italy make initial requests for MQ-9 Reaper (Handelsblatt, 21/06/2009).

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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).