The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) built by General Atomics and used primarily by the United States Air Force (USAF) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Initially conceived in the early 1990s for reconnaissance and forward observation roles, the Predator carries cameras and other sensors but has been modified and upgraded to carry and fire two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles or other munitions. The aircraft, in use since 1995, has seen combat over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia.
The USAF describes the Predator as a “Tier II” MALE UAS (medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system). The UAS consists of four aircraft or “air vehicles” with sensors, a ground control station (GCS), and a primary satellite link communication suite. Powered by a Rotax engine and driven by a propeller, the air vehicle can fly up to 400 nautical miles (740 km) to a target, loiter overhead for 14 hours, then return to its base.
Following 2001, the RQ-1 Predator became the primary unmanned aircraft used for offensive operations by the USAF and the CIA in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas; it has also been deployed elsewhere. Because offensive uses of the Predator are classified, U.S. military officials have reported an appreciation for the intelligence and reconnaissance-gathering abilities of UAVs but declined to publicly discuss their offensive use.
Civilian applications have included border enforcement and scientific studies.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pentagon began experimenting with reconnaissance drones in the early 1980s. The CIA preferred small, lightweight, unobtrusive drones, in contrast to the United States Air Force (USAF). In the early 1990s, the CIA became interested in the “Amber”, a drone developed by Leading Systems, Inc. The company’s owner, Abraham Karem, was the former chief designer for the Israeli Air Force, and had immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1970s. Karem’s company had since gone bankrupt and been bought up by a U.S. defense contractor, from whom the CIA secretly bought five drones (now called the “GNAT”). Karem agreed to produce a quiet engine for the vehicle, which had until then sounded like “a lawnmower in the sky”. The new development became known as the “Predator”.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA) was awarded a contract to develop the Predator in January 1994, and the initial Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) phase lasted from January 1994 to June 1996. The aircraft itself was a derivative of the GA Gnat 750. During the ACTD phase, three systems were purchased from GA, comprising twelve aircraft and three ground control stations.
From April through May 1995, the Predator ACTD aircraft were flown as a part of the Roving Sands 1995 exercises in the U.S. The exercise operations were successful, and this led to the decision to deploy the system to the Balkans later in the summer of 1995.
During the ACTD, Predators were operated by a combined Army/Navy team managed by the Navy’s Joint Program Office for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (JPO-UAV) and first deployed to Gjader, Albania, for operations in the Former Yugoslavia in spring 1995.
By the start of the United States Afghan campaign in 2001, the USAF had acquired 60 Predators, and said it had lost 20 of them in action. Few if any of the losses were from enemy action, the worst problem apparently being foul weather, particularly icy conditions. Some critics within the Pentagon saw the high loss rate as a sign of poor operational procedures. In response to the losses caused by cold weather conditions, a few of the later USAF Predators were fitted with de-icing systems, along with an uprated turbocharged engine and improved avionics. This improved “Block 1” version was referred to as the “RQ-1B”, or the “MQ-1B” if it carried munitions; the corresponding air vehicle designation was “RQ-1L” or “MQ-1L”.
The Predator system was initially designated the RQ-1 Predator. The “R” is the United States Department of Defense designation for reconnaissance and the “Q” refers to an unmanned aircraft system.The “1” describes it as being the first of a series of aircraft systems built for unmanned reconnaissance. Pre-production systems were designated as RQ-1A, while the RQ-1B (not to be confused with the RQ-1 Predator B, which became the MQ-9 Reaper) denotes the baseline production configuration. These are designations of the system as a unit. The actual aircraft themselves were designated RQ-1K for pre-production models, and RQ-1L for production models. In 2002, the USAF officially changed the designation to MQ-1 (“M” for multi-role) to reflect its growing use as an armed aircraft.
Command and sensor systems
During the campaign in the former Yugoslavia, a Predator’s pilot would sit with several payload specialists in a van near the runway of the drone’s operating base. Direct radio signals controlled the drone’s takeoff and initial ascent. Then communications shifted to military satellite networks linked to the pilot’s van. Pilots experienced a delay of several seconds between moving their joysticks and the drone’s response. But by 2000 improvements in communications systems (perhaps by use of the USAF’s JSTARS system) made it possible, at least in theory, to fly the drone remotely from great distances. It was no longer necessary to use close-up radio signals during the Predator’s takeoff and ascent. The entire flight could be controlled by satellite from any command center with the right equipment. The CIA proposed to attempt over Afghanistan the first fully remote Predator flight operations, piloted from the agency’s headquarters at Langley.
The Predator air vehicle and sensors are controlled from the ground station via a C-band line-of-sight data link or a Ku-band satellite data link for beyond-line-of-sight operations. During flight operations the crew in the ground control station is a pilot and two sensor operators. The aircraft is equipped with the AN/AAS-52 Multi-spectral Targeting System, a color nose camera (generally used by the pilot for flight control), a variable aperture day-TV camera, and a variable aperture infrared camera (for low light/night). Previously, Predators were equipped with a synthetic aperture radar for looking through smoke, clouds or haze, but lack of use validated its removal to reduce weight and conserve fuel. The cameras produce full motion video and the synthetic aperture radar produced still frame radar images. There is sufficient bandwidth on the datalink for two video sources to be used at one time, but only one video source from the sensor ball can be used at any time due to design limitations. Either the daylight variable aperture or the infrared electro-optical sensor may be operated simultaneously with the synthetic aperture radar, if equipped.
All later Predators are equipped with a laser designator that allows the pilot to identify targets for other aircraft and even provide the laser-guidance for manned aircraft. This laser is also the designator for the AGM-114 Hellfire that are carried on the MQ-1.
Predator operators at Balad Camp Anaconda, Iraq, August 2007
Each Predator air vehicle can be disassembled into six main components and loaded into a container nicknamed “the coffin.” This enables all system components and support equipment to be rapidly deployed worldwide. The largest component is the ground control station and it is designed to roll into a C-130 Hercules. The Predator primary satellite link consists of a 6.1 meter (20 ft) satellite dish and associated support equipment. The satellite link provides communications between the ground station and the aircraft when it is beyond line-of-sight and is a link to networks that disseminate secondary intelligence. The RQ-1A system needs 1,500 by 40 meters (5,000 by 125 ft) of hard surface runway with clear line-of-sight to each end from the ground control station to the air vehicles. Initially, all components needed to be located on the same airfield.
Currently, the U.S. Air Force uses a concept called “Remote-Split Operations” where the satellite datalink is located in a different location and is connected to the GCS through fiber optic cabling. This allows Predators to be launched and recovered by a small “Launch and Recovery Element” and then handed off to a “Mission Control Element” for the rest of the flight. This allows a smaller number of troops to be deployed to a forward location, and consolidates control of the different flights in one location.
The improvements in the MQ-1B production version include an ARC-210 radio, an APX-100 IFF/SIF with mode 4, a glycol-weeping “wet wings” ice mitigation system, upgraded turbo-charged engine, fuel injection, longer wings, dual alternators as well as other improvements.
On May 18, 2006, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a certificate of authorization which will allow the M/RQ-1 and M/RQ-9 aircraft to be used within U.S. civilian airspace to search for survivors of disasters. Requests had been made in 2005 for the aircraft to be used in search and rescue operations following Hurricane Katrina, but because there was no FAA authorization in place at the time, the assets were not used. The Predator’s infrared camera with digitally-enhanced zoom has the capability of identifying the heat signature of a human body from an altitude of 3 km (10,000 ft), making the aircraft an ideal search and rescue tool.
The longest declassified Predator flight to date lasted for 40 hours, 5 minutes.
The total flight time has reached 1 million hours as of April 2010.
Armed version development
The USAF handed the Predator over to the service’s Big Safari office after the Kosovo campaign in order to accelerate its testing in a strike role, fitted with reinforced wings and stores pylons to carry munitions, as well as a laser designator. This effort led to a series of tests, on February 21, 2001, in which the Predator fired three Hellfire anti-armor missiles, scoring hits on a stationary tank with all three missiles. The scheme was put into service, with the armed Predators given the new designation of MQ-1A. The Predator gives little warning of attack; it is relatively quiet and the Hellfire is supersonic, so it strikes before it is heard by the target.
In the winter of 2000–2001, after seeing the results of Predator reconnaissance in Afghanistan (see below), Cofer Black, head of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC), became a “vocal advocate” of arming the Predator with missiles to target Osama bin Laden in the country. He also believed that CIA pressure and practical interest was causing the USAF’s armed Predator program to be significantly accelerated. Black, and “Richard”, who was in charge of the CTC’s Bin Laden Issue Station, continued to press during 2001 for a Predator armed with Hellfire missiles.
Further weapons tests occurred between May 22 and June 7, 2001, with mixed results. While missile accuracy was excellent, there were some problems with missile fuzing…” In the first week of June, in the Nevada Desert, a Hellfire missile was successfully launched on a replica of bin Laden’s Afghanistan Tarnak residence. A missile launched from a Predator exploded inside one of the replica’s rooms; it was concluded that any people in the room would have been killed. However, the armed Predator did not go into action before the September 11 attacks.
The USAF has also investigated using the Predator to drop battlefield ground sensors and to carry and deploy the “Finder” mini-UAV.
NASA and NPGS unarmed research versions
Two unarmed versions, known as the General Atomics ALTUS were built, ALTUS I for the Naval Postgraduate School and ALTUS II for the NASA ERAST Project in 1997 and 1996, respectively.
As of March 2009, the U.S. Air Force had 195 MQ-1 Predators and 28 MQ-9 Reapers in operation. Predators and Reapers fired missiles 244 times in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. A report in March 2009 indicated that U.S. Air Force had lost 70 Predators in air crashes during its operational history. Fifty-five were lost to equipment failure, operator error, or weather. Four have been shot down in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Iraq. Eleven more were lost to operational accidents on combat missions. In 2012, the Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk were described as “… the most accident-prone aircraft in the Air Force fleet.”
On March 3, 2011, the U.S. Air Force took delivery of its last MQ-1 Predator in a ceremony at General Atomics’ flight operations facility. Since its first flight in July 1994, the MQ-1 series has accumulated over 1,000,000 flight hours and maintained a fleet fully mission capable rate over 90 percent.
Squadrons and operational units
During the initial ACTD phase, the United States Army led the evaluation program, but in April 1996, the Secretary of Defense selected the U.S. Air Force as the operating service for the RQ-1A Predator system. The 3rd Special Operations Squadron at Cannon Air Force Base, 11th, 15th, and 17th Reconnaissance Squadrons, Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, and the Air National Guard’s 163d Reconnaissance Wing at March Air Reserve Base, California, currently operate the MQ-1.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense recommended retiring Ellington Field’s 147th Fighter Wing’s F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets (a total of 15 aircraft), which was approved by the Base Realignment and Closure committee. They will be replaced with 12 MQ-1 Predator UAVs, and the new unit should be fully equipped and outfitted by 2009. The wing’s combat support arm will remain intact. The 272nd Engineering Installation Squadron, an Air National Guard unit currently located off-base, will move into Ellington Field in its place. The 3rd Special Operations Squadron is currently the largest Predator squadron in the United States Air Force.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection was reported in 2013 to be operating 10 Predators and to have requested 14 more.
On June 21, 2009, the United States Air Force announced that it was creating a new MQ-1 squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base that would become operational by February 2011. In September 2011, the U.S. Air National Guard announced that despite current plans for budget cuts, they will continue to operate the Air Force’s combat UAVs, including MQ-1B.
In the Balkans
A shot down RQ-1 Predator in the Museum of Aviation in Belgrade, Serbia
The first overseas deployment took place in the Balkans, from July to November 1995, under the name Nomad Vigil. Operations were based in Gjader, Albania. At least two Predators were lost during Nomad Vigil, one of them to hostile fire.
Several others were destroyed in the course of Operation Noble Anvil, the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia:
One aircraft (serial 95-3017) was lost on April 18, 1999, following fuel system problems and icing.
A second aircraft (serial 95-3019) was lost on May 13, when it was shot down by a Serbian Strela-1M surface-to-air missile over the village of Biba. A Serbian TV crew videotaped this incident.
A third aircraft (serial number 95-3021) crashed on May 20 near the town of Talinovci, and Serbian news reported that this, too, was the result of anti-aircraft fire.
In 2000 a joint CIA-Pentagon effort was agreed to locate Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Dubbed “Afghan Eyes”, it involved a projected 60-day trial run of Predators over the country. The first experimental flight was held on September 7, 2000. White House security chief Richard A. Clarke was impressed by the resulting video footage; he hoped that the drones might eventually be used to target Bin Laden with cruise missiles or armed aircraft. Clarke’s enthusiasm was matched by that of Cofer Black, head of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC), and Charles Allen, in charge of the CIA’s intelligence-collection operations. The three men backed an immediate trial run of reconnaissance flights. Ten out of the ensuing 15 Predator missions over Afghanistan were rated successful. On at least two flights, a Predator spotted a tall man in white robes at bin Laden’s Tarnak Farm compound outside Kandahar; the figure was subsequently deemed to be “probably bin Laden”. By October 2000, deteriorating weather conditions made it difficult for the Predator to fly from its base in Uzbekistan, and the flights were suspended.
On February 16, 2001 at Nellis Air Force base, a Predator successfully fired three Hellfire AGM-114C missiles into a target. The newly armed Predators were given the designation of MQ-1A. In the first week of June, 2001, a Hellfire missile was successfully launched on a replica of bin Laden’s Afghanistan Tarnak residence built at a Nevada testing site. A missile launched from a Predator exploded inside one of the replica’s rooms; it was concluded that any people in the room would have been killed. On September 4, 2001 (after the Bush cabinet approved a Qaeda/Taliban plan) CIA chief Tenet order the agency to resume reconnaissance flights. The Predators were now weapons-capable, but didn’t carry missiles because the host country (presumably Uzbekistan) hadn’t granted permission.
Subsequent to 9/11, approval was quickly granted to ship the missiles, and the Predator aircraft and missiles reached their overseas location on September 16, 2001. The first mission was flown over Kabul and Kandahar on September 18 without carrying weapons. Subsequent host nation approval was granted on October 7 and the first armed mission was flown on the same day.
On February 2002, armed Predators are thought to have been used to destroy a sport utility vehicle belonging to suspected Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and inadvertently kill Afghan scrap metal collectors near Zhawar Kili because one of them resembled Osama bin Laden.
On March 4, 2002, a CIA-operated Predator fired a Hellfire missile into a reinforced Taliban machine gun bunker that had pinned down an Army Ranger team whose CH-47 Chinook had crashed on the top of Takur Ghar Mountain in Afghanistan. Previous attempts by flights of F-15 and F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft were unable to destroy the bunker. This action took place during what has become known as the “Battle of Robert’s Ridge”, a part of Operation Anaconda. This appears to be the first use of such a weapon in a close air support role.
On April 6, 2011, the Predator had its first friendly fire incident when observers at a remote location did not relay their doubts about the target to the operators at Creech Air Force Base.
Main article: Drone attacks in Pakistan by the United States
Since at least 2004, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has allegedly been operating the drones out of Shamsi airfield in Pakistan to attack militants in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Since May 2003 the MQ-1 Predator fitted with Hellfire missiles has been successfully used to kill a number of prominent al Qaeda operatives. The use of the Predator has also resulted in a number of civilian deaths, particularly on January 13, 2006 when 18 civilians were killed. According to Pakistani authorities, the U.S. strike was based on faulty intelligence.
An MQ-1B Predator from the 361st Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off July 9, 2008 from Ali Base, Iraq.
An Iraqi MiG-25 shot down a Predator performing reconnaissance over the no fly zone in Iraq on December 23, 2002. This was the first time in history a conventional aircraft and a drone had engaged each other in combat. Predators had been armed with AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missiles, and were being used to “bait” Iraqi fighters, then run. In this incident, the Predator did not run, but instead fired one of its Stingers. The Stinger’s heat-seeker became “distracted” by the MiG’s missile and missed the MiG. The Predator was hit by the MiG’s missile and destroyed. Another two Predators had been shot down earlier by Iraqi SAMs, one of them on September 11, 2001.
During the initial phases of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, a number of older Predators were stripped down and used as decoys to entice Iraqi air defenses to expose themselves by firing. From July 2005 to June 2006, the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron participated in more than 242 separate raids, engaged 132 troops in contact-force protection actions, fired 59 Hellfire missiles; surveyed 18,490 targets, escorted four convoys, and flew 2,073 sorties for more than 33,833 flying hours.
Iraqi insurgents intercepted video feeds, which were not encrypted, using a $26 piece of Russian software named SkyGrabber. The encryption for the ROVER feeds were removed for performance reasons. Work to secure the data feeds is to be completed by 2014.
On November 3, 2002, a Hellfire missile was fired at a car in Yemen, killing Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, an al-Qaeda leader thought to be responsible for the USS Cole bombing. It was the first direct U.S. strike in the War on Terrorism outside Afghanistan.
In 2004, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC-TV) international affairs program Foreign Correspondent investigated this targeted killing and the involvement of then U.S. Ambassador as part of a special report titled “The Yemen Option”. The report also examined the evolving tactics and countermeasures in dealing with Al Qaeda inspired attacks.
On 30 September 2011, a Hellfire fired from an American UAV killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-citizen cleric and Al Qaeda leader, in Yemen. Also killed was Samir Khan, an American born in Saudi Arabia, who was editor of al-Qaeda’s English-language webzine, Inspire (magazine).
U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predators have been involved in reconnaissance and strike sorties in Operation Unified Protector. An MQ-1B fired its first Hellfire missile in the conflict on April 23, 2011, striking a BM-21 Grad. There are also some suggestions that a Predator was involved in the final attack against Gaddafi.
Predators returned to Libya in 2012, after the attack that killed the US Ambassador in Benghazi. MQ-9 Reapers were also deployed.
On 25 June 2011, US Predator drones attacked an al Shabaab training camp south of Kismayo. Ibrahim al-Afghani, a senior al Shabaab leader was rumored to be killed in the strike.
Four Al-Shabaab fighters, including a Kenyan, were killed in a drone strike late February 2012.
On 1 November 2012, two Iranian Sukhoi Su-25 attack aircraft engaged an unarmed Predator conducting routine surveillance over the Persian Gulf just before 5 am eastern U.S. time. The Su-25s made two passes at the drone firing their 30 mm cannons; the Predator was not hit and returned to base. The incident was not revealed publicly until November 8. The U.S. says the Predator was over international waters, 16 miles away from Iran and never entered its airspace.Iran states it entered Iran’s airspace and that its aircraft fired warning shots to drive it away.
It has also been used by the Italian Air Force since the end of 2004. Two civil-registered unarmed MQ-1s have been operated by the Office of the National Security Advisor in the Philippines since 2006.
The Predator has been licensed to sell to Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and UAE.
RQ-1A : Pre-production designation for the Predator system – four aircraft, Ground Control Station (GCS), and Predator Primary Satellite Link (PPSL).
RQ-1K : Pre-production designation for individual airframe.
RQ-1B : Production designation for the Predator UAV system.
RQ-1L : Production designation for individual airframe.
The M designation differentiates Predator airframes capable of carrying and deploying ordnance.
MQ-1A Predator : Early airframes capable of carrying ordnance (AGM-114 Hellfire ATGM or AIM-92 Stinger). Nose-mounted AN/ZPQ-1 Synthetic Aperture Radar removed.
MQ-1B Predator : Later airframes capable of carrying ordnance. Modified antenna fit, including introduction of spine-mounted VHF fin. Enlarged dorsal and ventral air intakes for Rotax engine.
MQ-1B Block 10 / 15 : Current production aircraft include updated avionics, datalinks, and countermeasures, modified v-tail planes to avoid damage from ordnance deployment, upgraded AN/AAS-52 Multi-Spectral Targeting System, wing deicing equipment, secondary daylight and infrared cameras in the nose for pilot visual in case of main sensor malfunction, and a 3 ft (0.91 m) wing extension from each wingtip. Some older MQ-1A aircraft have been partially retrofitted with some Block 10 / 15 features, primarily avionics and the modified tail planes.
Export variant of the Predator designed specifically to be unable to carry weapons to allow for wider exportation opportunities. Markets for it are expected in the Middle East and Latin America.
Note: although some sources refer to the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper as the “Predator B”, it is a separate, much larger aircraft and is not a variant of the RQ/MQ-1 Predator airframe design.
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