In August 2005, “Team Warrior” leader General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. in San Diego, CA won a $214.4 million cost-plus-incentive-fee contract for research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) of the Extended Range/ Multi Purpose Unmanned Aerial Vehicle System (ER/MP UAS).
The Sky Warrior ER/MP program is part of the US Army’s reinvestment of dollars from the canceled RAH-66 Comanche helicopter program, and directly supports the Army’s Aviation Modernization Plan. ER/MP could be a $1 billion effort, and recently strengthened its position when a 2007 program restructuring cut the Future Combat Systems Class III UAV competition. Now, in FY 2010, the MQ-1C “Gray Eagle” prepares to move into low-rate production, following tentative resolution of the first big “Key West” battle of the 21st century between the USAF and US Army.
The MQ-1C Sky Warrior, and its Band of Brothers
The Warrior was designed to fill both surveillance and attack roles, and the MQ-1C Sky Warrior derived from General Atomics’ famous MQ-1 Predator beat the Hunter II system offered by Northrop Grumman, Aurora Flight Systems, and IAI. With General Atomics Predators, Sky Warriors, and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs all headed for the skies above the conflict zone, our readers have asked us to help them tell the difference.
The MQ-1 Predator is 27 feet long, with a 55 foot wingspan. Its maximum gross takeoff weight is 2,3000 pounds, and it can carry 625 pounds of fuel, 450 pounds of internal payload (sensors), and another 300 pounds on its wings for up to 2 AGM-114 Hellfire anti-armor missiles or equivalent loads. Its service ceiling is 25,000 feet, which can keep it well above the 10,000-15,000 ceiling above which most guns are ineffective. The piston engine is a Rotax 914 turbo that runs on aviation fuel, and pushes the Predator at a slow speed of 120 KTAS. It’s controlled by UHF/VHF radio signals.
The MQ-1C Sky Warrior looks a lot like the Predator, but it’s a little bit bigger, can carry more weapons, and has a Thielert Centurion 135hp engine that can run on the same “heavy fuel” that fills up the Army’s land vehicles. The Sky Warrior is 28 feet long, with a 56 foot wingspan. Its service ceiling rises to 29,000 feet, and the piston engine gives it a slightly faster speed of 135 KTAS. Maximum gross takeoff weight is 3,200 pounds, carrying up to 600 pounds of fuel, 575 pounds of internal payload (sensors, plus a communications relay), and another 500 pounds on its wings. This doubles its weapon capacity to 4 AGM-114 Hellfire anti-armor missiles, or equivalent loads. The sensor turret payload was initially Raytheon’s AN/DAS-2, which has shifted to the final “Army Common Sensor Payload” AN/AAS-53 variant.
The MQ-1C Block 1 version is equipped with a higher-throughput C-band data link instead of using the Tactical Common Data Link, has a TALS (Tactical automated Landing System), and can be controlled by AAI’s OneSystem ground control instead of being restricted to General Atomics’ controllers. It also includes weather and lightning sensors, has de-icing capability, and can carry weapons, which the earlier Block 0 models could not do.
The USAF also had an MQ-1B Block X/ YMQ-1C project underway, to develop a Predator system that will run on heavy fuel and carry up to 4 Hellfires. Now that they’ve achieved a joint Predator/ Sky Warrior program, the burning question seemed to be which version of the Predator will win in the end – the former MQ-1B version currently in full production, or the new one? In the end, the answer was the MQ-1C – but that was because the USAF shifted its focus to the larger MQ-9 Reaper.
The MQ-9 Reaper, once called “Predator B,” is somewhat similar to the Predator. Until you look at the tail. Or its size. Or its weapons. It’s called “Reaper” for a reason – while it packs the same surveillance gear, it is much more of a hunter-killer design than its counterparts. The Reaper is 36 feet long, with a 66 foot wingspan. Its maximum gross takeoff weight is a whopping 10,500 pounds, carrying up to 4,000 pounds of fuel, 850 pounds of internal/ sensor payload, and another 3,000 pounds on its wings. The MQ-9 has 6 pylons, which can carry GPS-guided JDAM family bombs, Paveway laser-guided bombs, Sidewinder missiles for air-air self defense, and other MIL STD 1760 compatible weapons, in addition to Hellfire missiles. When loaded up with laser-guided Hydra rockets, the Reaper becomes the equivalent of a close air support fighter with less situational awareness, less speed and less survivability if seen – but much, much longer on-station time.
The Reaper’s service ceiling is 50,000 feet unless it’s fully loaded, which can make a lurking MQ-9 very difficult to find from the ground. That wouldn’t have been useful to the other aircraft due to the Hellfire missile’s short range, but the ability to drop GPS and laser-guided bombs makes precision combat strikes from 50,000 feet perfectly plausible. The engine is a Honeywell TPE 331-10T, which pushes it along at a rather speedier clip of 240 KTAS. Not exactly an F-16, or even an A-10, but the extra speed does get it to the problem area more quickly when a call comes in from the troops.
General Atomics’ Mariner maritime surveillance UAV and FAA-certified high-altitude Altair research UAV are both derived from the MQ-9 Reaper. So, too, is NASA’s Ikhana.
General Atomics-ASI’s Steve May has been quoted as saying that “The Army is now as large a customer for us as the Air Force.” According to May, the Army could buy as many as 540 Sky Warrior UAVs – 45 systems of 12 UAVs each, plus accompanying ground stations and crews. Pre-production Sky Warrior Block 0 aircraft have begun to fly on the front lines, and the Systems Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase of GA-ASI’s multi-year ER/MP contract calls for 17 Sky Warrior aircraft and 7 One System Ground Control Stations (OSGCS). The total program, including follow-on production, is estimated to be worth over $2 billion.
There’s also a manpower equation. Defense Technology International reports that sustaining one Predator “orbit” of on-call UAVs in a designated sector takes 4 MQ-1s, 50 people deployed forward, and another 30 in the rear.
Some aspects, like maintenance and ground crew support, will be the same no matter who flies the Sky Warriors or Predator UAVs. Other aspects, such as the ground station, will be different. With the USAF switching its future to a fundamentally different platform in the larger MQ-9 Reaper, that doesn’t matter as much as it might have. Fully automated take-off and landing is becoming more common among UAVs, and its presence in the MQ-1C is another difference from the USAF’s MQ-1 Predators. While the initial batch of UAVs will be flown by Army aviators, the Army plans to assign future Sky Warriors to non-pilot warrant officers with UAV training.
Key Sky Warrior partners include:
- General Atomics (UAV, Lynx APY-8 ground-looking radar)
- AAI Corporation (OneSystem)
- L-3 Com/Communications Systems-West (TCDL and SATCOM communications)
- SPARTA, Inc. (logistics support services)
- Thielert (Centurion heavy fuel engine)