Twenty-one years ago, the skies over combat zones were a very different place. Aircraft of all sorts screamed across the sky just as they do today, but just about every one of them had a person at the helm – controlling the craft from within and using a radio to communicate to ground elements and control. Although instrumental in establishing military superiority over an opponent, manned aircraft offer a few downsides – most prominent among them, having to keep the sack of meat in the pilot seat alive throughout the operation.
Enter the MQ-1 Predator UAV. While not the first drone aircraft, the Predator quickly became the go-to reconnaissance vehicle for American intelligence and defense agencies, coupling its ability to loiter over an area with a suite of surveillance equipment (called the AN/AAS-52 Multi-spectral Targeting System) held within the craft’s bulbous nose. Soon, arming the Predator became common practice, serving as both a force multiplier and unique weapons delivery platform that has aided in achieving countless objectives in the war on terror – and gaining plenty of critics for America’s use of the drone over contested regions all over the world.
But after over more than two decades of service, the United States Air Force announced that it would be retiring the storied MQ-1 Predator Drone in the early months of 2018, with most units transitioning away from the platform as early as this coming summer. In its place, the Air Force will introduce the MQ-9, a redesigned UAV built specifically to outperform its predecessor in the ever-changing combat environment that is modern warfare.
“When you ask about readiness, you have to ask ready for what?” said Air Force Colonel Joseph, the 432nd Operations Group commander. “If we talk about the things we could be ready for and what we should be asking our attack squadrons to do, then transitioning to an all MQ-9 force is imperative for readiness.”
The MQ-9 is better equipped that the MQ-1, with higher cruising and top speeds, increased munitions capacity and brand new suite of high-definition sensors. The new design means the MQ-9 will be capable of completing a wider variety of missions, and will hopefully be better than the aircraft it’s replacing at ones traditionally assigned to drone units.
“The reason that the MQ-9 has turned into a [close air support] platform, and this is the key point, is the fusion of two things,” Colonel Joseph said. “The first thing is the technology. We took an airplane and outfitted it with more raw power and capability, but then we did the other half and matted that technology with a professional aircrew.”
“In the case of the MQ-1, I think we wanted more out of it, but we were at a physical stop on the airplane and needed a new one,” Joseph added.
By transitioning entirely to an MQ-9 fleet, the Air Force will save money in terms of the training and equipment needed to maintain separate drone fleets.
“Having a single aircraft buys more flexibility, simplifies training and logistics and gives our people more [career progression] opportunities,” Joseph said. “I can’t move my people in between squadrons without paying the penalty of having to train them on another aircraft.”
The MQ-1 Predator was a combat game changer, but its replacement, the MQ-9, promises to be everything its predecessor was and more – with increased range, flight time, better sensors and the ability to carry as much as 4,000 pounds worth of missiles or bombs for delivery on target, the MQ-9 could, once again, change the face of air support as we know it.
“The MQ-1 is a great example where the Air Force took a technology demonstrator and turned it into a major weapons system having daily effects on the battlefield,” Air Force Lieutenant Colonel James, the 20th Attack Squadron commander, said. “We have found how to fly an imperfect weapons system very well, and I think we have maximized the effectiveness that we can get out of the MQ-1. I have no doubt that we will continue to find ways to be more effective in combat with the MQ-9.”
Colonel James and Colonel Joseph both seem optimistic about the difference transitioning to the MQ-9 will offer in combat, “We’re hitting a home run by going to the MQ-9,” James said. “We have made a difference.”
It remains unclear whether or not Air National Guard units will be making the change as well – as they tend to maintain older tech for longer due to budget constraints, but if the MQ-9 proves to be as capable as the Air Force claims, it’s likely we’ll see it adopted by the other branches, as well as intelligence agencies, within the next few years.
Image courtesy of the Defense Department