The RQ-1 Predator, a growth evolution of the proven GNAT system, uses common avionics and mechanical systems and incorporates a Rotax 4-cylinder engine. The Predator is equipped with a satellite data link system, an EO/IR stabilized gimbal containing two color video cameras and a FLIR as well as a synthetic aperture radar (SAR). Predator has demonstrated the ability to remain airborne for over 40 hours. Since 1995, Predator has been deployed to Southwest Asia and has recently completed its fifth combat area deployment to the Balkans providing reconnaissance in support to NATO forces in Kosovo. Predators have logged over 22,000 flight hours of which over 8,200 have been in combat area deployments. Based upon the success of the program, the U.S. Department of Defense transitioned the Predator program to production in August 1997, marking it as the first Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) program to be designated an Acquisition Category II (ACTII) Program. Predators are currently in production for the U.S. Air Force.
Land-based Predators have demonstrated the ability to support at sea maritime forces including carrier battle groups, amphibious ready groups and submarines. Predator is the only reconnaissance system available in the U.S. inventory that can provide near real time video imagery day or night in all-weather conditions via satellite worldwide - without exposing pilots to combat fire. As the first successful unmanned aircraft surveillance program to be fielded in decades, Predator provides tactical and strategic intelligence to operational commanders worldwide. In July 1995, the Air Force Air Combat Command commissioned the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron, the Air Force's first operational Predator squadron. The second Predator squadron, the 15th Reconnaissance, was commissioned in August 1997.
In response to the ever-increasing mission requirements for civil and military applications, GA-ASI is currently developing Predator B, a prop jet-powered solution to expand the mission performance and capability of Predator for the new millennium. Based on the reliability of the Predator airframe, avionics, mechanical systems, data link and flight control technology, Predator B will have 50% more payload capacity, an endurance of up to 24 hours and speeds over 220 knots operating to altitudes of 45,000 ft MSL.
On 21 February 2001 a Hellfire-C that was fired from a Predator successfully destroyed a stationary Army tank at the Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Airfield near Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. This weaponization of Predator includes installing hard points on the wings and reinforcing the wings to support the Hellfire missile. These structural changes included adding composites to its forward and rear spars, plus some aluminum for attaching the hard points.
The Times of London reported that this adaptation of the Predator was a direct result of lessons learned during the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999. During this campaign, when the Predator located military targets, attack aircraft would have to be deployed from Italy; by the time the planes arrived on target, the military targets were already gone. However, with armed Predators, targets located by the Predator can be attacked immediately with its Hellfire-C missiles.
The Hellfire-C missile used in the 21 February 2001 test was the laser-guided version versus the radar-guided Longbow Hellfire. While the Longbow Hellfire might be an option for the future, laser guidance appears to present fewer problems as of late 2001. It is unclear if the synthetic aperture radar, which is a known component of the Predator, is a suitable Longbow Hellfire guidance system. Compared to a separate guidance radar, laser guidance consumes less weight, space, and electrical power, and probably is more difficult for the adversary to detect. The existing video capability on the Predator would allow the ground control station to spotlight a target using a laser. Therefore it seems likely, based on the available information, that Hellfire missiles used on the Predator in Afghanistan are the Hellfire-C and/or the Hellfire-K.
Federation of American Scientists
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.