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Monday, September 19, 2016

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Weapons of the War in Afghanistan: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Part I

Weapons of the War in Afghanistan

In the world of war, weapons and technology are ever changing, each war is characterized by the weapons and tactics used to fight it. As new environments and enemies are encountered, the parties to those wars develop new - more effective tactics, technologies, and weapons to counter and defeat their adversaries. The ingenuity seen in war has existed since (and most certainly before) the first wars of recorded history and continue to this very day. 

Keeping with that theory, let’s take a look at the weapons that have characterized the wars and conflicts that the United States has been a party to over the course of it’s history. During the course of this series, I aim to breakdown the weapons used in each conflict by their classification, and to which party they were employed by. Having served in combat operations in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, I would like to start our series with the War in Afghanistan. 

For our twelfth installment let's take a look at the most common Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAVs) of the war in Afghanistan. These can be anything from surveillance and Reconnaissance UAVs, to UAVs armed with precision-guided munitions. UAVs have played a larger role in the modern conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Global War on Terror overall.

Part I: The United States

RQ-5 Hunter
The IAI RQ-5 Hunter unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was originally intended to serve as the United States Army's Short Range UAV system for division and corps commanders. It took off and landed (using arresting gear) on runways. It used a gimbaled EO/IR sensor to relay its video in real time via a second airborne Hunter over a C-band line-of-sight data link. The RQ-5 is based on the Hunter UAV that was developed by Israel Aircraft Industries.

In 1995, A Company, 15th Military Intelligence Battalion (Aerial Exploitation) out of Fort Hood, TX was the first Army field unit equipped with the Hunter. A Company conducted multiple successful training rotations to the National Training Center. Then in March 1999, they were deployed to the Republic of Macedonia in support of NATO operations in Kosovo. During the 7 month operation, the Hunter was flown over 4,000 hours. Significant operational success in Kosovo led to resumption of production and technical improvements. Hunter was used in Iraq and other military operations since then. A version armed with the Northrop Grumman GBU-44/B Viper Strike weapon system is known as the MQ-5A/B.

As of October 2012, the U.S. Army had 20 MQ-5B Hunters in service. Retirement of the Hunter was expected to be completed in 2013, but Northrop was awarded a support contract for the Hunter in January 2013, extending its missions into 2014.

On 16 December 2015, the Hunter flew its final flight in Army service at Fort Hood. Since entering service in 1995, the aircraft had been deployed to the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It was deployed to the Balkans four times between 1999 and 2002, accumulating 6,400 flight hours, and was the first Army UAS to cross into Iraq in 2003, proving itself for the first time in contingency operations as an intelligence asset to commanders at all levels and flying more hours than any other NATO reconnaissance platform. One capability unique to the Hunter was its relay mode that allowed one aircraft to control another at extended ranges or over terrain obstacles. By the end of Operation New Dawn in 2011, Hunters had flown more than 110,000 hours, its battlefield success clearly showing the value of UASs in combat operations as a direct result. While Army operators transitioned to the larger and more capable MQ-1C Gray Eagle, the Hunter is being transferred to government-owned, contractor-operated units supporting operations overseas.

RQ-7 Shadow
The AAI RQ-7 Shadow is an American unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used by the United States Army and Marine Corps for reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition and battle damage assessment. Launched from a trailer-mounted pneumatic catapult, it is recovered with the aid of arresting gear similar to jets on an aircraft carrier. Its gimbal-mounted, digitally stabilized, liquid nitrogen-cooled electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) camera relays video in real time via a C-band line-of-sight data link to the ground control station (GCS).

The US Army's 2nd Battalion, 13th Aviation Regiment at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, trains soldiers, marines, and civilians in the operation and maintenance of the Shadow UAV.

The RQ-7 Shadow is the result of a continued US Army search for an effective battlefield UAV after the cancellation of the Alliant RQ-6 Outrider aircraft. AAI Corporation followed up their RQ-2 Pioneer with the Shadow 200, a similar, more refined UAV. In late 1999, the army selected the Shadow 200 to fill the tactical UAV requirement, redesignating it the RQ-7. Army requirements specified a UAV that used a gasoline engine, could carry an electro-optic/infrared imaging sensor turret, and had a minimum range of 31 miles with four-hour, on-station endurance. The Shadow 200 offered at least twice that range, powered by a 38 hp rotary engine. The specifications also dictated that UAV would be able to land in an athletic field.

By July 2007, the Shadow platform accumulated 200,000 flight hours, doubling its previous record of 100,000 hours in 13 months. The system then surpassed 300,000 flight hours in April 2008, and by May 2010, the Shadow system had accumulated over 500,000 flight hours. As of 2011, the Shadow had logged over 709,000 hours. The Shadow platform has flown over 37,000 sorties in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan by US Army and Army National Guard units. On 6 August 2012, AAI announced that the Shadow had achieved 750,000 flight hours during more than 173,000 missions. More than 900,000 flight hours had been logged by Shadow UAVs by the end of June 2014.

The U.S. Army is implementing a plan to reform its aerial scout capabilities by scrapping its fleet of OH-58 Kiowa helicopters from 2015–2019 and replacing them with AH-64 Apache attack helicopters teamed with Shadow and MQ-1C Grey Eagle UAVs. Using unmanned assets to scout ahead would put the pilots of manned aircraft out of reach of potential harm. Reformed combat aviation brigades (CAB) would consist of a battalion of 24 Apaches for attack missions and an armed reconnaissance squadron of another 24 Apaches teamed with three Shadow platoons totaling 12 RQ-7s overall; it would also include a Grey Eagle company. The manned-unmanned teaming of Apaches and UAVs can meet 80 percent of aerial scout requirements. On 16 March 2015, the 1st Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment was reflagged the 3rd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, making it the first of 10 Apache battalions to be converted to a heavy attack reconnaissance squadron by eliminating the Kiowa scout helicopter and having three RQ-7 Shadow platoons organically assigned; the attack battalions will also be aligned with an MQ-1C Gray Eagle company assigned to each division. Moving Shadows from brigade combat team level to the battalions themselves reduces lines of communication, distance issues, and allows operators and pilots to better train and work together.

RQ-11 Raven
The AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven is a small hand-launched remote-controlled unmanned aerial vehicle developed for the United States military, but now adopted by the military forces of many other countries.

The RQ-11 Raven was originally introduced as the FQM-151 in 1999, but in 2002 developed into its current form, resembling an enlarged FAI class F1C free flight model aircraft in general appearance. The craft is launched by hand and powered by a pusher configuration electric motor. The plane can fly up to 6.2 miles at altitudes of appx 500 feet above ground level, and over 15,000 feet above mean sea level, at flying speeds of 28–60 mph.

The Raven RQ-11B UAV system is manufactured by AeroVironment. It was the winner of the US Army's SUAV program in 2005, and went into Full-Rate Production in 2006. Shortly afterwards, it was also adopted by the US Marines, and the US Air Force for their ongoing FPASS Program. More than 19,000 Raven airframes have been delivered to customers worldwide to date. A new Digital Data Link-enabled version of Raven now in production for US Forces and allies has improved endurance, among many other improvements.

The Raven can be either remotely controlled from the ground station or fly completely autonomous missions using GPS waypoint navigation. The UAV can be ordered to immediately return to its launch point simply by pressing a single command button. Standard mission payloads include CCD color video cameras and an infrared night vision camera.

The RQ-11B Raven UAV weighs about 4.2 lb, has a flight endurance of 60–90 minutes and an effective operational radius of approximately 6.2 miles.

The RQ-11B Raven UAV is launched by hand, thrown into the air like a free flight model airplane. The Raven lands itself by auto-piloting to a pre-defined landing point and then performing a 45° slope (1 foot down for every 1 foot forward) controlled "Autoland" descent. The UAV can provide day or night aerial intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance.

In mid-2015, the U.S. Marine Corps tested Harris Corporation's Small Secure Data Link (SSDL), a radio device that fits onto a Raven's nose to provide beyond line-of-sight communications for Marines down to squad level. Acting as communications nodes for ground forces has become an important function for UAVs, but has been restricted to larger platforms like the RQ-4 Global Hawk or RQ-21 Blackjack. Being certified for 'Secret' classification and at just 25 cubic inches (measuring 3 in × 5.3 in × 1.6 in) and weighing 18 oz, the Harris SSDL allows the small Raven UAV to extend communications for troops in the field.

In August 2015, selected units began receiving upgrades to their Raven sensors. The Raven Gimbal is a rotating camera with a 360-degree gimbal, which replaces the fixed camera that required maneuvering the entire aircraft to look. The new camera can also be switched between day and night settings without landing and swapping sensors.

MQ-1 Predator
The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator is an American 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 aerial 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 in war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the NATO intervention in Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq War, Yemen, Libyan civil war, the intervention in Syria, 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 nmi (460 mi) to a target, loiter overhead for 14 hours, then return to its base.

On 16 February 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.

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.

In 2002, the USAF officially changed the designation to MQ-1 ("M" for multi-role) to reflect its growing use as an armed aircraft.

On 4 March 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 Roberts Ridge", a part of Operation Anaconda. This appears to be the first use of such a weapon in a close air support role.

As of March 2009, the U.S. Air Force had 195 MQ-1 Predators 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 3 March 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.

On 6 April 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.

On 5 May 2013, an MQ-1 Predator surpassed 20,000 flight hours over Afghanistan by a single Predator. Predator P107 achieved the milestone while flying a 21-hour combat mission; P107 was first delivered in October 2004.

On 22 October 2013, the U.S. Air Force's fleets of MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft reached 2,000,000 flight hours. The RPA program began in the mid-1990s, taking 16 years for them to reach 1 million flight hours. The 2 million hour mark was reached just two and a half years after that.

To Be Continued...

Shawn G in the Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan.

For more info on these and other weapons
Technical specs compiled from:

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Shawn in the Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan.

For more info on these and other weapons
Technical specs compiled from:

"The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement."


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