UAVs give military constant presence over battlefield

By Karl Terry, PNT Managing Editor

They’ve been called the U.S. military’s “unblinking eye,” and the ability to provide a near constant presence overhead is the attraction of unmanned aerial vehicles.

High-tech military systems such as the MQ-1 Predator, which the Air Force eventually plans to bring to Cannon Air Force Base, have changed the face of modern warfare during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Markus Deters, deputy for unmanned systems division at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Air Force Base, Fla.

“What the Predator gives you is that 24-hour eye in the sky,” Deters said. “It’s definitely something everybody out there wants.”

The MQ-1 Predator’s primary functions, according to an Air Force fact sheet, are armed reconnaissance, airborne surveillance and target acquisition. The $40 million aircraft can take off on a 5,000 foot runway and has a range of 454 miles. It can be armed with two Hellfire laser-guided missles, making it an offensive weapon when necessary.

Deters said one of the major benefits of the Predator is its staying power — a drone can remain aloft for as much as 24 hours and because you don’t have to have actual people flying it, fewer people are required to be in forward positions in harm’s way.

Instead of having personnel deployed into a forward area and having to set up bases and supply lines to those people, Deters said a good portion of the crew can remain in the U.S.

Deters said UAVs have been in great demand during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the technology and dependability of the Predator continues to improve and active use has increased their use.

“(That’s) because we’re in an operation that could cost a lot of life and limb,” Deters said.

Deters said they are able to put a Predator up for a long period of time above a particularly troublesome spot and provide constant intelligence on enemy movement and strength.

The Predator is a complete system, according to the fact sheet, which includes four aircraft, a ground control station, a Predator Primary Satellite Link and approximately 55 personnel for deployed 24-hour operations.

Normally a ground crew flies the aircraft during takeoff and line-of-sight flight, according to Deters. They then handoff operation of the aircraft, via satellite, to a Predator Operations Center, often in the U.S.

The drone can be disassembled and packed into a “coffin” and transported on a C-130 transport aircraft.

The Air Force became the operating service for RQ-1 Predator in 1996. Since that time the name was changed to MQ-1 to reflect the addition of its armament.

“It’s just one of the more valuable assets we have here at AFSOC and we’re looking to expand,” Deters said.