Mention the word ‘drones’ to today and apart from their use in aerial photography most people will call to mind the modern day military use of drones. In fact, unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have been in use since the late 19th century. A UAV may be anything from a balloon to a self-propelled aircraft guided by computer.

There are many advantages to using UAVs. They can enter areas that would be too dangerous for a manned craft. Because they do not have to be designed around the needs of a pilot, they can be much smaller and lighter than conventional aircraft, saving on materials and fuel. They can remain in continuous flight for many hours, limited only by the amount of fuel they can carry, and perform repetitive routines that would be wearing for a human pilot.

Modern UAVs are employed in both military and civilian contexts. Their functions include surveillance, research, data recording and combat roles.

Military Use of Drones – Predator UAV

Predator Development and Specifications

The Predator is a UAV developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. Powered by a Rotax 914 four-cylinder engine, it has a 49-foot wingspan and can carry a 450-pound payload. It has an operational ceiling of 50,000 feet and a top speed of 135 miles per hour. 

In the early 1990s, the need for an unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft was recognised. The Predator programme began development in 1994, and the Predator UAV, designated RQ-1, entered production in 1997. The Predator was upgraded in 1998, with a more powerful engine and increased capacity for deployment in adverse weather conditions. The capacity to carry and deploy AGM-114 Hellfire missiles was also added, and aircraft thus equipped were designated MQ-1, indicating their multi-role function.

Military Use of Drones - Predator UAV
An MQ-1 Predator, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, piloted by Lt. Col. Scott Miller on a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force Photo / Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt)

As well as cameras and radar, the MQ-1 is fitted with the Raytheon multi-spectral targeting system and can also carry mission-specific components, for example a rangefinder or a moving target indicator.

A Predator Unmanned Aircraft System comprises four Predators, a ground control station and a satellite link. Each Predator is flown remotely by a pilot, while a second crew member operates sensors and weapons. The type is currently operational with the United States Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Air National Guard and the United States Customs and Border Protection. In addition, six Predators have been delivered to the Italian Air Force.  The larger MQ-9 Reaper (see below) is a development of the Predator.

Never Mind, We'll Do It Ourselves: The Inside Story of How a Team of Renegades Broke Rules, Shattered Barriers, and Launched a Drone Warfare Revolution
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Predator Deployment and Service History

The Predator first saw operational service in the Balkans in 1995, flying reconnaissance missions over the former Yugoslavia. Since then, the Predator has been deployed in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere. In 2000, Predators were involved in an effort to locate Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Predator UAVs took part in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2002, and in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2009. 

In addition to reconnaissance and attacks on ground targets, Predators can provide air support to ground troops or to manned aircraft, and engage in air to air combat with conventional fighter aircraft.

The military use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles is increasing in both scale and scope as the technology improves. Utilising UAVs can save both financial costs and loss of human life. It is to be expected that the United States will continue to expand and develop its UAV programme.

Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution
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  • 369 Pages - 09/16/2014 (Publication Date) - Henry Holt and Co. (Publisher)

Military Use of Drones – Reaper UAV

The Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (aka Predator B or Guardian) was developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., the latest in their series of UAV’s. As with the preceding tactical, unmanned combat air vehicles, the Reaper was designed specifically for use by the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy although it proved a valuable tool for use by the CIA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It was this UAV that came out top in the U.S. Air Force’s hunter-killer procurement program. As a result of winning this project, the Reaper is now being successfully deployed as part of U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan. 

As a military weapon, the MQ-9 Reaper’s high-altitude surveillance capabilities are proving invaluable in tracking enemy manoeuvres and as a missile delivery system. Its 950-shaft horsepower, turboprop engine gives it a cruise speed of three times that of its predecessor, the MQ-1 Predator. In fact, coupled with its speed, its ability to carry 15 times more ordnance than the Predator has outstripped that UAV in all except loiter time.

Although unmanned and able to fly autonomously, the MQ-9 Reaper is always monitored or controlled by the same ground systems that have been used to control the MQ-1’s. At the Ground Control Station an aircrew is always charged with the responsibility of controlling the Reaper and of commanding any weapons employment. One major purpose in retaining the human element in UAV combat roles is to address the question of accountability should these unmanned vehicles be the cause of civilian deaths or injury.

Military Use of Drones - Reaper UAV
An MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle flies a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force Photo / Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt)

Speaking of the MQ-9 Reaper a senior member of the U.S. Airforce suggested that the United States had moved from using UAVs primarily in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance roles to true hunter-killer roles. As a possible consequence of this it has then also been suggested that no civilian should be charged with what is a purely military responsibility and that such responsibility be left entirely in the hands of military personnel.

Birds of Prey: Predators, Reapers and America's Newest UAVs in Combat
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Evidence of one such unit making this crucial transition can be seen in the actions of The New York Air National Guard 174th division, who are, since 2008, committing more men for training as pilots of unmanned aerial vehicles than for any other single weapons system. The MQ-9 Reaper can take much of the credit for the confidence being displayed in the reliability and effectiveness of unmanned aerial vehicles.

According to international laws of war such as those of The Geneva Convention, a burden is placed on combatants to ‘limit collateral damage through proper identification of targets and distinction between combatants and non-combatants’. The abilities of the MQ-9 Reaper in discerning these come closest to fulfilling any such obligations. 

The superior surveillance capabilities of the MQ-9 Reaper have also made it extremely useful to the CIA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection service as a highly effective tool in monitoring non-military related criminal activities such as drug smuggling and illegal immigration. It seems that ‘big brother’ is indeed keeping a close and awesomely dissuasive watch on us all with the state-of-the-art technological invention known as MQ-9 Reaper. 

Reaper Force - Inside Britain's Drone Wars
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