The decision by the United States a decade ago to put laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfire missiles on the RQ-1 Predator, turning the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems reconnaissance UAV into a weapon, kick-started the still-unfolding UAV revolution. Still, armed UAVs, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), account for just a fraction of the dozens of remotely piloted aircraft already developed or on drawing boards worldwide.
The United States and Israel have led the way in arming UAVs and remain the countries most active in developing such weapons, said Philip Finnegan, a senior analyst with Teal Group, based in Fairfax, Va. Among other nations, France’s Sagem, a Safran group company, has demonstrated integration of its Sperwer UAV with Rafael Spike LR missiles.
Israel, whose precarious strategic situation has made it a pioneer in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance UAVs, refuses to discuss whether it has armed them, but according to press reports, Elbit Systems’ Hermes 450 long endurance UAV can carry Hellfire missiles.
The Israel Defense Forces also may have installed weapons on the long endurance, high-altitude Eitan, a derivative of the Heron TP aircraft built by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).
Elbit Systems and IAI both declined to comment.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency also refuses to acknowledge its armed UAV capabilities, though the fact that it has been using such weapons with increasing frequency against Al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan is hardly a secret. The U.S. Air Force and Army, meanwhile, have embraced armed UAVs with enthusiasm.
The Air Force’s MQ-1, as the armed version of the 2,300-pound gross takeoff weight Predator is designated, made its debut in Afghanistan in 2001 and has been used there and in Iraq ever since. The Air Force also flies General Atomics’ larger MQ-9 Reaper, whose gross takeoff weight is 10,500 pounds. The Reaper can carry up to eight AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and four Raytheon GBU-12 Paveway II precision-guided bombs, compared to the Predator’s weapons payload of two 105-pound Hellfires.
The U.S. Air Force is writing requirements for a more advanced armed UAV, currently designated MQ-X. The U.K. Ministry of Defence has a requirement for an unmanned surveillance and weapons-delivery platform, for which BAE Systems developed the Mantis UAV, and has analyzed equipping the new Thales UK/Elbit Systems Watchkeeper 450, based on the Elbit Hermes 450 platform, with a light missile.
The newest armed UAV to enter service for the United States is the Army’s MQ-1C Extended Range/Multipurpose (ER/MP) Sky Warrior, a Predator derivative manufactured by General Atomics.
Major ER/MP subcontractors include L-3 Communications Systems-West, of Salt Lake City, supplying the Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) and satellite communications; and AAI Corp., of Hunt Valley, Md., its One System Ground Control Station.
In July, General Atomics said it had received $195.5 million in funding from the U.S. Army toward an estimated $399 million contract to provide supplemental hardware and low-rate initial production (LRIP) of the Sky Warrior. Full funding will provide for 34 Sky Warriors, 16 ground control stations, airborne and ground TCDL equipment, and other items to include automatic landing systems, spares, and ground support equipment. In 2011, the company is scheduled to deliver over two aircraft per month through the end of 2012.
Earlier this year, the Army announced the completion of a series of test firings using the Lockheed Martin Hellfire II missile at the Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake, Calif. The tests helped complete the ER/MP’s Milestone C review, which assesses production readiness and program acquisition maturity, paving the way to LRIP of two complete systems and an additional eight vehicles for training and replacement of war losses.
The Army was expected to send four weaponized ER/MPs and two ground control stations to Afghanistan in July. A full system will comprise five ground control stations and 12 aircraft.
The Army has also used the “Warrior Alpha” version of the Predator in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters. At 3,200 pounds, the ER/MP is beefier than both Predator and Warrior Alpha. It features a heavy fuel engine, triple redundant avionics, redundant flight surfaces and network connectivity.
Unlike the Air Force, whose officer pilots fly Predators and Reapers from ground control stations in the United States via satellite data link, Army operators will deploy with the ER/MP. But the aircraft “flies itself” by autopilot, said Tim Owings, deputy program manager for Army Unmanned Aircraft Systems. The operator’s job is to deconflict airspace, talk to air traffic control, and decide where the ER/MP should go.
“He clicks a button on a map and it goes there,” Owings said. The ER/MP even takes off and lands itself.
The aircraft’s three flight-control computers use voting logic to resolve any differences in control surface inputs. “I won’t say you won’t ever have an avionics failure, but it’s highly unlikely, because now you have triple redundancy to practically every function,” Owings said.
The aircraft’s TCDL is “the most robust UAS data link ever fielded to date,” Owings said, and its communications suite “second-to-none. It has full 273 megabit capability, compared to a fraction of that on a Predator or Warrior Alpha,” he said.
That bandwidth will allow the ER/MP Sky Warrior to stream digital electro-optical and infrared video in high definition as well as images from its synthetic aperture radar and signals intelligence equipment to ground troops while also serving as a relay for the Army’s SINCGARS and EPLRS voice radio systems.
“It gives you the ability to fuse sensor data, either in the air or on the ground, but bring all of that information back simultaneously, not one stream at a time,” Owings said.
The same sensor ball includes a laser designator and laser spot tracker to guide Hellfire missiles launched by the ER/MP or laser-guided weapons dropped by manned aircraft.
Testing wasn’t completed at this writing, but the ER/MP will also carry a new Hellfire P+ missile the first designed to be fired by UAVs that can turn after launch to hit targets in any direction.
“The P+ missile has the ability to engage targets off-axis from the forward nose of the ER/MP,” Owings said. “With the prior version of Hellfire you could only engage targets you were closing on, on a forward path. The UAV has a 360-degree look-down angle, so we wanted to be able to engage targets directly below us, off-axis from us, potentially even behind us, and that’s what the P+ missile brings for us.”
The Army is working on yet another innovation — installing sensor balls on the ER/MP’s wingtips. This “Triclops” ER/MP, Owings said, will allow operators to hand off control of one sensor ball to, say, an AH-64D Apache attack helicopter pilot while a ground commander takes charge of a second sensor ball and the UAV’s crew handles the third.
When it comes to armed UAVs, the rest of the world clearly has a lot of catching up to do.
Russia, China and South Korea are among other countries developing armed UAVs of their own design, analysts agree. Pakistan and India, meanwhile, “are on the open market trying to buy armed UAV technology,” said Ed Herlik, managing partner with Market Intel Group, of Colorado Springs, Colo., a technology and market forecasting company.
China’s Poly Technologies has developed a lightweight missile weighing 45 kilograms, or just under 100 pounds, called the AR-1 for use on UAVs, according to a Teal Group report. Guided by semi-active laser homing, the AR-1 has a 10-kilogram (22 pound) warhead and a range of up to eight kilometers, or about five miles, depending on launch altitude.
Russia’s Sokol design bureau unveiled a mockup of an armed UAV called the Dan-Baruk at the 2007 Moscow air show. Derived from the Danem target drone, the Dan-Baruk “supposedly can be fitted with pods to dispense munitions against (ground) targets encountered during its surveillance mission,” Finnegan said.
But “it would appear that over the last decade, most Russian UAV programs are either in limbo or barely funded.”