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Monday, September 26, 2016

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

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.

GG&G Mossberg 930 Front Sling Attachment

Part II: The United States

MQ-9 Reaper
The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of remote controlled or autonomous flight operations, developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) primarily for the United States Air Force. The MQ-9 and other UAVs are referred to as Remotely Piloted Vehicles/Aircraft (RPV/RPA) by the USAF to indicate their human ground controllers. The MQ-9 is the first hunter-killer UAV designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance. In 2006, the then–Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force General T. Michael Moseley said: "We've moved from using UAVs primarily in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance roles before Operation Iraqi Freedom, to a true hunter-killer role with the Reaper."

The MQ-9 is a larger, heavier, and more capable aircraft than the earlier General Atomics MQ-1 Predator; it can be controlled by the same ground systems used to control MQ-1s. The Reaper has a 950-shaft-horsepower turboprop engine (compared to the Predator's 115 hp piston engine). The greater power allows the Reaper to carry 15 times more ordnance payload and cruise at about three times the speed of the MQ-1. The aircraft is monitored and controlled by aircrew in the Ground Control Station (GCS), including weapons employment.

In 2008, the New York Air National Guard 174th Attack Wing began the transition from F-16 piloted fighters to MQ-9 Reapers, becoming the first fighter squadron conversion to an all–unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) attack squadron. In March 2011, the U.S. Air Force was training more pilots for advanced unmanned aerial vehicles than for any other single weapons system. The Reaper is also used by the United States Navy, the CIA, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, NASA, and the militaries of other countries. The USAF plans to keep the MQ-9 in service into the 2030s.

A typical MQ-9 system consists of multiple aircraft, ground control station, communications equipment, maintenance spares, and personnel. A military crew comprises a pilot, sensor operator, and Mission Intelligence Coordinator. The aircraft is powered by a 950 horsepower turboprop, with a maximum speed of about 260 knots (300 mph) and a cruising speed of 150–170 knots (170–200 mph). With a 66 ft wingspan, and a maximum payload of 3,800 lb, the MQ-9 can be armed with a variety of weaponry, including Hellfire missiles and 500-lb laser-guided bomb units. Endurance is 30 hours when conducting ISR missions, which decreases to 23 hours if it is carrying a full weapon load. The Reaper has a range of 1,000 nmi (1,150 mi) and an operational altitude of 50,000 ft, which makes it especially useful for long-term loitering operations, both for surveillance and support of ground troops.

An MQ-9 can adopt various mission kits and combinations of weapons and sensors payloads to meet combat requirements. Its Raytheon AN/AAS-52 multi-spectral targeting sensor suite includes a color/monochrome daylight TV, infrared, and image-intensified TV with laser rangefinder/laser designator to designate targets for laser guided munitions. The aircraft is also equipped with the Lynx Multi-mode Radar that contains synthetic aperture radar (SAR) that can operate in both spotlight and strip modes, and ground moving target indication (GMTI) with Dismount Moving Target Indicator (DMTI) and Maritime Wide-Area Search (MWAS) capabilities. The Reaper was used as a testbed for Gorgon Stare, a wide-area surveillance sensor system. Increment 1 of the system was first fielded in March 2011 on the Reaper and could cover an area of 6.2 sq mi; increment 2, incorporating ARGUS-IS and expanding the coverage area to 39 sq mi, achieved initial operating capability in early 2014. The system has 368 cameras capable of capturing 5 million pixels each to create an image of about 1.8 billion pixels; video is collected at 12 frames per second, producing several terabytes of data per minute.

On 1 May 2007, the USAF's 432d Wing was activated to operate MQ-9 Reaper as well as MQ-1 Predator UAVs at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada. The pilots first conducted combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan in the summer of 2007. On 28 October 2007, the Air Force Times reported an MQ-9 had achieved its first "kill", successfully firing a Hellfire missile against Afghanistan insurgents in the Deh Rawood region of the mountainous Oruzgan province. By 6 March 2008, according to USAF Lieutenant General Gary North, the Reaper had attacked 16 targets in Afghanistan using 500 lbs bombs and Hellfire missiles.

On 13 September 2009, positive control of an MQ-9 was lost during a combat mission over Afghanistan, after which the control-less drone started flying towards the Afghan border with Tajikistan. An F-15E Strike Eagle disabled the Reaper's engine with an AIM-9 missile. The satellite link with the vehicle was restored and the operator steered it into a mountainside. It was the first US drone to be destroyed intentionally by allied forces.

By July 2010, thirty-eight Predators and Reapers had been lost during combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, another nine were lost in training missions in the U.S. In 2010, the USAF conducted over 33,000 close air support missions, a more-than-20 percent increase compared with 2009. By March 2011, the USAF had 48 Predator and Reaper combat air patrols flying in Iraq and Afghanistan compared with 18 in 2007.

On 22 October 2013, the USAF's fleets of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs 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 later.

RQ-4 Global Hawk
The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is an unmanned (UAV) surveillance aircraft. It was initially designed by Ryan Aeronautical (now part of Northrop Grumman), and known as Tier II+ during development. The Global Hawk performs a similar role as the Lockheed U-2. The RQ-4 provides a broad overview and systematic surveillance using high-resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and long-range electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors with long loiter times over target areas. It can survey as much as 40,000 square miles of terrain a day.

The Global Hawk is operated by the United States Air Force. It is used as a high-altitude platform covering the spectrum of intelligence collection capability to support forces in worldwide military operations. According to the United States Air Force, the superior surveillance capabilities of the aircraft allow more precise weapons targeting and better protection of friendly forces. Cost overruns led to the original plan to acquire 63 aircraft being cut to 45, and to a 2013 proposal to mothball the 21 Block 30 signals intelligence variants. Each aircraft was to cost US$60.9 million in 2001, but this had risen to $222.7 million per aircraft (including development costs) by 2013. The U.S. Navy has developed the Global Hawk into the MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance platform.

The Global Hawk UAV system comprises the RQ-4 air vehicle, which is outfitted with various equipment such as sensor packages and communication systems; and a ground element consisting of a Launch and Recovery Element (LRE), and a Mission Control Element (MCE) with ground communications equipment. Each RQ-4 air vehicle is powered by an Allison Rolls-Royce AE3007H turbofan engine with 7,050 lbf (31.4 kN) thrust, and carries a payload of 2,000 pounds. The fuselage comprises an aluminum, semi-monocoque construction with V-tail; the wings are made of composite materials.

There have been several iterations of the Global Hawk with different features and capabilities. The first version to be used operationally was the RQ-4A Block 10, which performed imagery intelligence (IMINT) with a 2,000 lbs payload of a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) with electro-optical (EO) and infrared (IR) sensors; seven A-model Block 10s were delivered and all were retired by 2011. The RQ-4B Block 20 was the first of the B-model Global Hawks, which has a greater 3,000 lbs payload and employs upgraded SAR and EO/IR sensors; four Block 20s were converted into communications relays with the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) payload. The RQ-4B Block 30 is capable of multi-intelligence (multi-INT) collecting with SAR and EO/IR sensors along with the Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload (ASIP), a wide-spectrum signals intelligence (SIGINT) sensor. The RQ-4B Block 40 is equipped with the multi-platform radar technology insertion program (MP-RTIP) active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which provides SAR and moving target indication (MTI) data for wide-area surveillance of stationary and moving targets.

Since the RQ-4 is capable of conducting sorties lasting up to 30 hours long, scheduled maintenance has to be performed sooner than on other aircraft with less endurance. However, since it flies at higher altitudes than normal aircraft, it experiences less wear during flight.

Following the September 11th attacks, the normal acquisition process was ditched almost immediately and early developmental Global Hawk models were employed in overseas contingency operations beginning in November 2001. Global Hawk ATCD prototypes were used in the War in Afghanistan and in the Iraq War. 

On 11 February 2010, the Global Hawks deployed in the Central Command AOR accrued 30,000 combat hours and 1,500 plus sorties.

Initial operational capability was declared for the RQ-4 Block 30 in August 2011. The USAF did not plan to keep the RQ-4B Block 30 in service past 2014 due to the U-2 and other platforms being less expensive in the role; but Congress sought to keep it in service until December 2016. The USAF had 18 RQ-4 Block 30s by the time of the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, which directed a further three RQ-4s to be procured as part of Lot 11; The USAF felt that additional aircraft were "excess to need" and likely become backup or attrition reserve models. Despite the potential retirement of the Block 30 fleet due to low reliability, low mission readiness, and high costs, the USAF released a pre-solicitation notice on 12 September 2013 for Lot 12 aircraft. In planning the USAF's FY 2015 budget, the Pentagon reversed its previous decision, shifting $3 billion from the U-2 to the RQ-4 Block 30, which had become more competitive with the U-2 due to increased flying hours. Factors such as cost per flight hour (CPFH), information gathering rates, mission readiness, adverse weather operational capability, distance to targets, and onboard power still favored the U-2.

RQ-20 Puma
Previously selected for the United States Special Operations Command in 2008, in March 2012 the United States Army ordered the Puma All Environment (AE) and designated it the RQ-20A. In April, the United States Marine Corps and United States Air Force placed a similar order for the RQ-20A. Each military RQ-20A system has three air vehicles and two ground stations. The Puma AE can operate under extreme weather conditions including temperatures ranging from −20 to 120 °F, wind speeds up to 25 kn (29 mph), and an inch of rain per hour.

On 26 July 2013, the Puma became one of the first unmanned aerial vehicles to be granted certification by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly in U.S. airspace for commercial purposes. AeroVironment expects one to be deployed to Alaska to support oil spill response crews and count wildlife. The Puma can safely accomplish observation missions in hazardous Arctic locations, which is safer, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly than using manned aircraft. Commercial certification was the result of previous military certification and the Congressionally-mandated opening of airspace over much of Alaska to small UAVs. The FAA also certified the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle, also planned to be deployed to Alaska. Only three individual Pumas were certified with strict requirements: only one aircraft of the type is allowed airborne at any one time, they cannot fly through clouds or icing conditions, and they cannot take off or land during certain gust and wind conditions. The certifications did not mention line-of-sight control.

In August 2016, AeroVironment announced the U.S. Navy had tested and deployed the RQ-20B Puma aboard a Flight I Guided Missile Destroyer, which included the company's Precision Recovery System to autonomously recover the aircraft aboard a ship. The Puma is also being utilized on Navy patrol craft in the Persian Gulf.

MQ-1C Gray Eagle
The General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle (previously the Warrior; also called Sky Warrior and ERMP or Extended-Range Multi-Purpose) is a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft system (UAS). It was developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) for the United States Army as an upgrade of the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator.

A Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) UAV, the Gray Eagle has an increased wingspan and is powered by a Thielert Centurion 1.7 Heavy Fuel Engine (HFE). This is a Diesel piston engine that burns jet fuel, giving the aircraft better performance at high altitudes. It can operate for 36 hours at altitudes up to 25,000 feet, with an operating range of 200 nautical miles. The aircraft's nose fairing was enlarged to house a synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indicator (SAR/GMTI) system, and targeting is also provided with an AN/AAS-52 Multi-spectral Targeting System (MTS) under the nose. The aircraft can carry a payload of 800 pounds and may be armed with weapons such as AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and GBU-44/B Viper Strike guided bombs. Its sensors can fuse infrared imagery and use the SAR to scan and detect changes in terrain like tire tracks, footprints, and buried improvised explosive devices when performing a second scan.

In May 2013, Raytheon delivered two electronic attack payloads as part of the Army's Networked Electronic Warfare, Remotely Operated (NERO) system, for jamming enemy communications on behalf of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). Derived from the Communications Electronic Attack Surveillance and Reconnaissance (CEASAR) system on the C-12 Huron, mounting NERO on the unmanned Gray Eagle gives reduced risk, reduced operating costs, and two to three times the endurance of electronic attack missions. Test flights showed that the Gray Eagle could operate with the jammer payload without being subject to adverse effects.

The Improved Gray Eagle has a maximum gross takeoff weight 4,200 lbs with its 205 hp engine, compared to the Gray Eagle's 3,600 lbs MGTOW and 160 hp engine. The Gray Eagle can carry 575 lbs of fuel, while the IGE can carry 850 lbs of fuel internally with its deep belly design and 500 lbs centerline hardpoint. External fuel tanks can add 450 lbs of extra fuel, allowing for a 50-hour endurance. The IGE also increases internal payload capacity from 400 lbs to 540 lbs. Empty weight is 2,906 lbs, endurance without the external tank is 45 hours, and engine can sustain an output of 180 hp continuously. General Atomics has added new winglets that can increase endurance a further one percent and allow the addition of a new vertical antennae. A special operations configuration can carry two Hellfire missiles and a SIGINT payload for 35 hours, as opposed to 14–15 hours for the Block 1 Grey Eagle.

On 23 February 2009, Task Force ODIN performed the first MQ-1B Warrior-Alpha combat missile launch.

According to General David Petraeus in August 2010, during the previous 90 days in Afghanistan information provided by ODIN had resulted in the killing or capture of 365 militant leaders, detained 1,335 insurgent foot soldiers, and killed another 1,031 Taliban.

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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