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The Buzz Above

Updated: May 10, 2022

The current war in the Ukraine has shed light on the use of an emerging weapon system, the military drone. During this blog, we'll trace the development of military drones, as well as their current battlefield capabilities.

Perhaps, the first use of modern drones were in the realm of target practice. During World War II, Radioplane, a prominent drone manufacturer, produced the OQ-2 target drone, which was a piston-powered aircraft. After the war, Radioplane built upon the success of the OQ-2 by producing the Basic Training Target (BTT) series of drones. Later target drones produced by Radioplane during the 1950's were the OQ-19/KD2R and the MQM-33/MQM-36 Shelduck. These craft performed well and remained in service until the early 2000's. The first target drone designated for the photo reconnaissance mission was an MQM-33 conversion for use by the US Army in the mid-1950's. Initially classified as the RP-71, the MQM-33 was successful in the the reconnaissance role and later designated the MQM-57 Falconer. The United States Department of Defense contracted with several other drone manufacturers during 1950's, producing drones similar to the radioplane types. As early as 1946, the Globe company built a series of target drones beginning with the KDG Snipe, followed by the KD2G and the KD5G pulsejet-powered targets, with the KDG6 the final piston-powered model. The G6 model was similar in design to the Radioplane BTT drone series, but differed with a twin-fin tail. The KDG6 accounted for the majority of Globe production and was later designated the MQM-40, but was phased out of service by the early 1960's. Another concept developed in the 1950's was that of decoy drones. Launched from bomber aircraft, their purpose was to confuse enemy radar vectoring interceptor aircraft to the approaching bomber. The Northrup Crossbow, which first flew in 1956, was the first practical decoy drone. The Crossbow was superseded by the Longbow the following year, but the Longbow was out of production within a year. The final, and most successful missile-drone was the Quail which entered service in 1960. The Quail, built by McDonnell Aircraft, entered service in 1960 with a service ceiling of 50,000ft.and a speed of Mach .9. Effective in its role, the Quail had a range of 445 miles. However, it was retired in 1978 due to advances in Soviet radar systems.

The versatility of target drones promoted their use in other military operations. Though drones conducted a number of successful reconnaissance missions during the Viet Nam War, they weren't designed for offensive operations until the 1980's. The outlook toward Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) changed drastically with the Israeli Air Force's victory over the Syrian Air Force in 1982. The Israelis tactically employed UAVs with manned aircraft, with the former destroying dozens of Syrian aircraft. The Israeli drones were also used as electronic jammers and decoys in addition to real time video reconnaissance. The combat capability of drones began to be appreciated by other nations, as the US military began developing UAVs for signal intelligence purposes to relay data from land, air, sea and space platforms using high-bandwidth data links. Though the concept of a high endurance UAV had been under discussion for decades, it wasn't until 1984 when a serious effort was initiated to build a high endurance drone. During that year, the US Department of Defense awarded a $40 million contract to Leading Systems Incorporated of Irvine, California to build an endurance UAV, code name Amber. The Amber unit was a multi-mission aircraft, which could be utilized in a photographic reconnaissance, electronic intelligence (ELINT) and cruise missile roles. The Amber was 15ft. long with a wingspan of 28ft. and a weight of 740lbs. The unit was powered by a four-cylinder liquid-cooled piston engine, producing sixty-five hp. The Amber had an inverted v-tail, which worked well with a pusher configuration, protecting the propeller during takeoff and landing. The wing was mounted on a short pylon above the fuselage. The airframe and outer skin of the Amber were made of Kevlar and plastic materials and it utilized a retractable stiltlike tricycle landing gear to provide propeller clearance. The Amber had a flight endurance in excess of thirty-eight hours with initial flights taking place in 1986 and endurance flight tests in 1987. However, the Amber program came under congressional scrutiny in 1987 with additional UAV contracts proposed. As a result of this confusion, Congress decided to cut funding for the Amber project, as well as other proposals. As a result of the funding constraints, Leading Systems Incorporated (LSI) was forced into bankruptcy, and was bought out by General Atomics in 1991, who would later advance the Amber into an operational drone, the MQ-1 Predator.

Predators first saw combat in the Balkans in 1995. Ground commanders quickly realized the loiter capability of drones made them valuable in surveying a battle area under changing conditions. While USAF supersonic jets could only provide limited coverage of Serbian troop movements in the dense Balkan forests, Predator drones could provide low altitude surveillance for a constant twenty-four hours. Another fundamental advantage of drones is their ability to accomplish a mission without being dependent on a pilot to fly them in mid air. Since drone pilots remotely control the craft, they are not subject to pilot fatigue as with manned aircraft with continuing the mission merely a matter of changing remote operators. Initially, drones transmitted their signals directly to ground commanders. However, with advancements in technology by 2008, military drones began to relay their signals by satellite network, which enhanced both their efficiency and range. Due to several terrorist attacks in the 1990's, both the CIA and the US military began to take an interest in the potential of drones as aerial weapons, with the Predator RQ-1 manufactured by General Atomics as the most practical choice. Having a range of 400 miles with a 14 hour endurance, Predators armed with Hellfire missiles began tests in the late 1990's. These came to fruition in 2001, in which a Predator drone armed with laser-guided missiles launched the first combat strike by a remotely piloted aircraft in Kandahar,

Afghanistan in an attempt to neutralize Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Though the mission was unsuccessful, it ushered in the era of militarized drones.

During the late 1990's two major drone systems were developed, the MQ-5 Hunter and the RQ-4 Global Hawk. The MQ-5 Hunter, which entered service in 1996, was a twin-boomed drone with the propeller at the rear of the fuselage in a pusher configuration. The Hunter had a length of 23ft. with a wingspan of 35ft. with a service ceiling of 18,000ft. and a range of eighty miles. Used extensively in the Balkans from 1999 to 2002, they logged more than 100,000 flight hours with the US Army during its eighteen year career. The MQ-5 was designed to control another UAV in flight, at extended ranges or difficult terrain. The Hunter was armed with the Viper, a GPS controlled glide bomb. All twenty Hunter UAVs were retired in 2015, as the army was transitioning to the larger and more capable MQ-1C Gray Eagle. In the 1990's, the USAF began to express interest in unmanned aircraft for purposes of signal, photographic and electronic surveillance . Though the SR-71 was successful in performing such missions on a manned basis, the air force was in need of a versatile aircraft, which, if shot down, would not bring forth the political implications facing a crew. The Hawk was initially in competition with a smaller stealth aircraft, the Dark Star. Faced by budget constraints, the air force decided to pursue the Global Hawk program, due to it being a larger and more versatile plane. The Global Hawk first flew in 1998 and had the distinction of flying early versions of the aircraft, while it was still in development. Though the surveillance capability was in line with operations in the Middle East, a collision between a Lockheed P3 Orion and a Chinese fighter plane near Hainan Island in 2001 increased interest in unmanned aerial vehicles for Asiatic areas, as well. The Global Hawk has a length of forty-eight ft. with a wingspan of one-hundred thirty-one ft. The Hawk has a service ceiling of 60,000ft. with a maximum speed of 391mph. and a cruising speed of 347 mph. It has a range of 14,154 miles and flew a dual record flight in April 2001 from Edwards Air Force Base in California to the Royal Australian Air Force base in Edinburgh, Australia; for being the first UAV to cross the Pacific, as well as the longest UAV flight to date. The MQ-1C Gray Eagle first flew in 2004 and is an upgraded Predator unit built by General Atomics. The Gray Eagle offers increased range, payload and endurance over that of the Predator. The MQ-9 Reaper is based on the Predator frame with enhanced electronics, range, payload and altitude. The Reaper is a dedicated hunter-killer UAV and is capable of either ground or autonomous flight control. The Reaper first flew in 2007 and with a large turboprop engine it can carry fifteen times the ordinance at three times the speed of the Predator. The MQ-8 Fire Scout is an autonomously controlled UAV helicopter. The Fire Scout first flew in 2006 and features a sensor ball turret for aerial video observation, in addition to a laser range finder. Built by Northrup Grumman, the Fire Scout has a payload of 200 lbs. with a range of 125 miles and an endurance of three hours at an altitude of 20,000 ft. The Scout is both land-based and ship-based.

While military drones offer a number of advantages over their manned counterparts, such as reduced cost, cost of operation, lighter weight, relative stealth and crew flexibility, perhaps their primary dilemma is a moral one due to the precision of their strikes in the war on terror.

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