Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Predator and Reaper UAV operations -- from the inside

WMR has received a number of briefings on the operations of the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). For the operators of the remotely-piloted vehicles, however, they do not consider the aircraft "unmanned" because they provide 24 hours and seven days a week coverage and there is a large support team behind every Predator and Reaper flight. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Lance "Sky" King is quick to point out that "we do not fly drones, we fly aircraft."

The Air Force has proudly claimed that it has not had one Predator shot down. Unofficially, however, there are reports of Predators being shot down in Iraq. There are plans afoot to place more than two A6M-114P laser-guided Hellfire supersonic missiles on the Predator, replace the Predator with a new and more foolproof radar-avoiding stealthy version. The present fleet of Predators and Reapers already possess stealth capabilities due to their carbon-fiber skin and very little metal components. An advanced version of the Reaper foresees the capability for in-flight re-fueling. Currently, the larger Reaper, which can carry four Hellfire missiles, can operate with 18 hours of sustained flight. There are plans to increase to eight the number of Hellfires carried by a Reaper.

One drawback of the Predators and Reapers are that they are not all weather. Because of the satellite links to operators at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada, cloud cover poses problems for the satellite links, requiring operations to be conducted from line-of-sight forward ground control centers.

When UAVs were first used by the Air Force in 1995, they only has line-of-sight capabilities, which meant they could operate 100 miles from the ground control station. Beyond line-of-sight capabilities, using satellite links via the Predator Primary Satellite Link (PPSL) for Predator in-flight operations, began in 2001. Hellfires were also first fitted on the Predators in 2001.

There have also been reported icing problems with the Predator and Reaper, which has resulted in them being grounded. The reconnaissance capabilities of the forward camera on the Predator and Reaper, known as the "MTS Ball" or MQ-16 electro-optical/intra-red camera, can read a driver's license from 20,000 plus feet. Infra-red sensors are so sensitive, often the operators have honed on lit cigarettes at night to target people. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) permits day and night operations in most weather conditions. The infra-red surveillance systems have one drawback at night that does not exist for daytime operations. At night, the color of a vehicle, for example, cannot be determined.

Currently, the Air Force can fly 50 UAVs 24 hours a day. Two-thirds of the remotely-piloted vehicle training squadrons are at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, while the others are at Creech Air Force Base, north of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Four every four UAVs, there are two ground control stations. Reservist training on the UAVs takes place at Ellington Field, Houston, Texas and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.

Each Predator and Reaper has a "cockpit" comprised of a pilot on the left, usually a qualified Air Force pilot, and and a sensor operator on the right, usually a senior enlisted person. The pilot controls a throttle stick and a rudder control. The sensor operator controls the camera at the bottom of the aircraft. There is also a moving map display with a Global Positioning System (GPS) overlay.

The pilot's screen permits the pilot to look out from the nose and the bottom of the aircraft. The screen feature is of primary importance during takeoffs and landings. For deployment operations, there is a two second delay in sending instructions to the aircraft from either Nellis or Creech.

The pilot and sensor operator also have access to the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network or "SIPRNET" screen, which allows them to read email and scan Internet websites. A third member of the UAV team is the mission intelligence contol (MIC) operator. The MIC monitors additional screens to gather real-time and other intelligence.

Presently, Predators and Reapers, which are exchanged between the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters, are a high priority for the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), Central Command (CENTCOM), and European Command (EUCOM). However, at the present time, 90 percent of all UAVs are dedicated to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although the Hellfire missiles are billed by the Air Force as causing "minimal collateral damage," some Air Force personnel pointed out that they do not exclusively use the weaponry or the Predators. It is known that the CIA maintains its own fleet of Predators and that some of the operations were contracted out to the former Blackwater USA, now Xe Security Services. Predators firing Hellfires have been reported to have killed hundreds of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and possibly, Somalia.

In 2007, there were 112 Hellfire attacks from UAVs, in 2008, the number climbed to 132, and in 2009, so far, there have been 87 missile attacks. The UAVs are a personal favorite of Defense Secretary Robert Gates.