One of the most controversial new developments in military aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (colloquially known as drones) is an exponentially growing sector. As opposed to traditional conventional forces, UAVs are used in both military programs and in the civilian sector (notably in covert Central Intelligence Agency targeted-killing programs). They are also considered useful in other non-combat applications – commercial package deliveries, collecting weather data, fertilizing agricultural crops, etc. In 2012, Congress passed a bill, which the president signed into law, allowing the use of UAVs in domestic airspace and requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to set forth regulations on commercial drone use by 2015. In 2013, Amazon announced Amazon Prime Air, a service which seeks to eventually use UAVs to enable package delivery 30 minutes after being ordered.
Although not a new concept, unmanned flight in its current incarnation (with a vast array of capabilities including real-time surveillance, data-capture, and precision attack) is a result of advances in micro-processing computers and the development of Global Position Systems (GPS) in the 1990s. Today’s UAVs are so powerful that, according to one expert, a drone can detect a milk carton from sixty thousand feet. There is even some concern that UAVs will render traditional manned combat aircraft obsolete. The military’s fast-increasing reliance on drone systems in reflected in the 2014 budget, with $3.7 billion requested for unmanned air systems.
The United States’ drone programs for targeted assassinations have been in place since the Bush (43rd) administration and has since become a central component of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy, having carried out as many drone strikes in its first ten months as the Bush administration did throughout its entire final three years. Within Obama’s first year, the administration enacted more missile strikes than in the Bush Administration’s entire 8 year presidency. In Pakistan, Bush enacted 48 drone strikes throughout his administration whereas Obama oversaw over 300. In 2001, USAF’s entire drone fleet numbered about 50. Now, the number of the entire United States military’s drones totals well over ten thousand. Although strike UAVs garners the most attention, 85% of the military’s drones are supplied by AeroVironment while accounting for only two percent of the Pentagon’s drone budget. AeroVironment makes unarmed, lower tier (smaller) UAVs for reconnaissance and surveillance missions.
Role: UAVs fall under the following broad categories: target & decoy, reconnaissance, combat, logistics, research & development, and civil & commercial. The United States military also retains a classification system which separates UAVs into “tiers” which designates the UAV’s military role. The USAF, USMC, and USA each have their own tier system with small/micro UAVs generally Tier N/A or I and with increasing altitude and range as Tier levels go up. The USAF has two high altitude, long endurance (HALE) categories Tier II+ and Tier III. USAF Tier II+ and III must have an altitude of 60-65,000 feet, 300 knots airspeed, 3,000 mile range, and a 24 hour time on station capability but Tier III must also be low-observable. In the USAF, the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper are Tier II, the RQ-4 Global Hawk is Tier II+, and the RQ- 170 is Tier III.
Models in Service:
United States Air Force (USAF), United States Army (USA), United States Marine Corps (USMC), United States Navy (USN), United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM)
|NAME||BRANCH||VARIANTS||QUAN-TITY||MANUFAC-TURER||NOTES/CAPABILITIES IN BRIEF|
|MQ-1 Predator||USAF||MQ-1B||246||General Atomics||Operating since 1994 (officially in 2004), the Predator was the first unmanned aerial system to become weaponized. Originally known as RQ-1 (reconnaissance), the Predator was designated MQ-1 (multi-role) after being integrated with two Hellfire Air-to-Ground Missile (AGM)-114 capabilities.|
|MQ-1C Grey Eagle||USA||MQ-1C||12||General Atomics||A derivative of the USAF’s Predator, the Grey Eagle is used primarily in reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA) operations. With 27+ hour endurance, altitude of 29,000 feet, and four Hellfire missiles, the Grey Eagle is used for persistent stare, long-dwell reconnaissance and surveillance, as well as target acquisition and attack operations.|
|RQ-4 Global Hawk/MQ-4C Triton||USAF||RQ-4A||37||Northrop Grumman||With altitudes reaching up to 65,000 feet and 35 hours endurance, the enormous, 130-foot wingspan Global is able to capture a picture as large as the state of Illinois in a single mission. Using AN/ZPY-3 MFAS radar with 360 degree active sensor radar array, an MTS-B multi-spectral electro-optical sensor system, and an electronic service measures suite derived from the EP-3 ARIES, one radar sweep by the Global Hawk can survey 2000 square miles. The Triton is a modification of the land-surveying Global Hawk for use in naval applications. Upgrades include: anti/de-icing technology, bird-strike, and lightning protection. The Triton also has a more robust lower fuselage allowing it to function in lower altitudes and inclement weather.|
|RQ-5 Hunter||USA||MQ-5B||20||Northrop Grumman||Based off the Impact by the Israel Aircraft Industries, the Hunter is currently being replaced by the MQ-1C Grey Eagle.|
|RQ-7 Shadow||USA||RQ-7B||491||AAI Corp.||Used in a reconnaissance, relay communications, and target acquisition role, the Shadow offers tactical support to the Army and Marine Corps. Its primary payload depends on the mission and may include EO/IR systems and planned SAR and MTIs. The Shadow, a smaller, Army Tier II aircraft (11.2 feet long, 3.3 feet high, 14 feet wingspan), can be catapult launched from a hydraulic rail launcher. The Shadow systems are controlled by ground control stations on high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (Humvee) mounted systems.|
|MQ-9 Reaper||USAF||MQ-9B||126||General Atomics||A heavier, more potent variant of the MQ-1, the Reaper is a multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV designed for intelligence collection, precision strikes, close air support, and other supportive roles. The Reaper’s baseline system consists of a Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MTS-B) with visual sensors, infrared sensors, color/monochrome daylight TV camera, and separate or fused full-motion video. For armament, the Reaper features a laser-guided range-finder/designator for deploying a combination of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, Guided Bomb Unit (GBU)-12 Paveway II, and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions.|
|RQ-11 Raven||USA||RQ-11B||7,362||Aero-Vironment||A small (4.2 pound, 4.5 wingspan) hand-launched UAV, the Raven is used for low altitude surveillance over danger zones. The Raven can be automated – self-navigating with GPS. It is programmable to stalk a target, link with ground robots, and re-establish contact with ground control if lost. Made of light weight composites, the Raven is highly survivable – proven re-operable after a crash-landing.|
|Maveric||USA||36||Prioria Robotics, Inc.||A mini-UAS, the Maveric features bendable wings and a modular nose, tail, fuselage, and payload. Available payloads include digital gimbaled, Gimbaled EO, thermal IR, and shortwave IR.|
|RQ-170 Sentinel||USAF||RQ-170||Lockheed Martin||Known as the Beast of Kandahar, the Sentinel is a high altitude, long-endurance UAV. The Beast is highly stealthy and able to capture real-time imagery and relay data to ground control station (GCS) using line of sight (LOS) communication data links. It was used in the May 2011 raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad feeding real-time footage to the White House. Specifics on the RQ-170’s capabilities are classified and little is publically released except that it has a radar-deflecting, bat-wing shaped body.|
|QF-4 Phantom||USAF||QRF-4C||230||Boeing||Previously a fighter plane manufactured by now-defunct aerospace company McDonnell Douglas, the Phantom has now been re-purposed as a drone after being combat-retired in 1996. The QF-4 is used as an aerial target in military training exercise for air-to-air weapons test. Simulating enemy maneuvers and equipped with electronic countermeasures, the QF-4 is a realistic, fully-functional model for weapons evaluations.|
|ScanEagle||USN||Insitu||Composed of five field-replaceable modules (nose, fuselage, avionics, wings, and propulsion), ScanEagle is a mini UAV that is pneumatically launched by a catapult. Payloads, fitted onto the nose, can include EO/IR sensors, bio-chemical sensors, and magnet and laser devices. The ScanEagle can be used for ISR operations, communications relay, and other low-altitude supporting roles.|
|Switchblade||USA||Aero-Vironment||The Lethal Miniature Aerial Munitions System (LMAMS), or the Switchblade, is a camera-equipped, expendable kamikaze strike vehicle. Carrying an explosive, the Switchblade can be quietly deployed against a beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) target. Weighing only six pounds and measuring 24 inches long, the Switchblade is also capable of safely disposing of munitions should a mission be canceled after launching.|
|Puma AE||USA||RQ-20A||1,137||Aero-Vironment||Weighing just 13 pounds, the Puma AE (All Environment) is designed to land safely, within 25 meters of a designated spot, on any surface (water, sand, crowded streets, etc.). The Puma is equipped with a lightweight gimbaled EO/IR camera with an 860 nanometer laser illuminator.|
|Stalker||USSOCOM||Stalker||Lockheed Martin||Although currently retaining a field endurance of about 13 hours, recent experiments have shown that the Stalker is capable of 48 hours of continuous flight if charged by ground-based laser power. Stalker XE is a ruggedized solar-powered variant containing a solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC).|
|RQ-21 Blackjack||USMC||RQ-21A||Insitu||Designed for both maritime and land environments, the Blackjack is a highly flexible small UAV with adaptable infrastructure – featuring modular parts, roll-on/roll-off capabilities, and customizable payload integrations.|
Currently being procured by the Army, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle is an unmanned aircraft system derived from the Air Force’s MQ-1 Predator. The Gray Eagle will be armed and used for reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, and attack missions. A total of $4.7 billion over the next two years will be spent on procurement, which is scheduled to end in fiscal year 2015.
The Navy continues testing and enhancements on the MQ-4C Triton, a drone based on the USAF’s RQ-4B Global Hawk and developed under the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program. Improvements include a signals intelligence collection capability and upgraded systems communications relay. Air-to-air radar modifications are currently under discussion and operational testing is scheduled for 2016. $3.3 billion is appropriated for fiscal year 2014 with $12.1 billion beyond.
The USAF is procuring the MQ-9 Reaper, based on the MQ-1 Predator, over the next five years. A total of 346 aircraft worth $10.4 billion and an additional $1.5 billion for upgrades has been allocated to the Reaper. The MC-9 system contains four aircraft and associated control equipment, including laser and GPS-guided bombs and Hellfire missiles.
The Air Force’s procurement of the RQ-4 Global Hawk ended in fiscal year 2013 with a total of 45 aircraft. The Global Hawk comes in two models RQ-4A, which has been retired, and RQ-4B, which comes in three configurations. RQ-4B Block 20 has an imagery intelligence payload. RQ-4B Block 30 has imagery and signals intelligence payloads. RQ-4B Block 40 has advanced air-to-surface radar for wide-area surveillance of both fixed and moving targets. The legacy U-2 fleet has been retired in favor of Block 30. Block 40 is still primarily in operational testing. $9.20 billion has been appropriated for the next five years and beyond for the Global Hawks.