The Strange Impact of Predator Losses

An interesting piece by Strategy Page — providing insights into the demand for UAVs. And the not-surprising Air Force insistence that Predator pilots must be experienced existing pilots. Thus the acute shortage of Air Force pilots, whilst the Army has enough pilots because the army uses NCOs trained specifically for UAV operation.

April 3, 2007: The U.S. Air Force has, so far, lost 53 of the 139 Predator UAVs it has received. Another 110 Predators are on order, but the manufacturer is turning them out as fast as they can. Most of the losses are not combat related. Component failure, or operator error are the most common cause. Not being on board, the operators have a hard time quickly determining what might be wrong. That delay often results in a lost UAV. The same is true for landings, which have a higher error rate than manned aircraft. Nearly all the lost Predators are the “A” model (the MQ-1).

Some of the losses have been the result of collisions with smaller army UAVs. The air force is using that as a reason to give the air force control over all UAVs that operate over at over 3,500 feet. This has caused some pretty testy exchanges between the air force and the other services. The army usually has many more (over 50 times more) UAVs in the air than the air force, although most of these are low altitude micro-UAVs used by infantry and Special Forces units. The army does not want to let the air force have control of its UAVs, because these aircraft provide essential air reconnaissance that the air force is unable to provide. The Predators, in particular, are in great demand, because they can stay in the air much longer than army UAVs (which can, at most, stay up for about five hours per sortie). Predators each average about 110 hours in the air per month. Each aircraft flies 6-7 sorties a month, each one lasting 17-18 hours on average.

Currently, the army only gets about a third of its requests for Predator missions filled. That’s because the air force has not got enough Predators. There is also a shortage of Predator operators. A typical Predator crew consists of an pilot and a sensor operator. Because the Predator stays in the air for so long, more than one crew is needed for each sortie. Crew shortages sometimes result in Predators coming down before their fuel is used up. The air force insists that existing pilots (of manned aircraft) be trained as Predator operators. The army uses NCOs trained specifically for UAV operation. The smallest (and most widely used) army UAVs are the under-ten pound micro-UAVs, which can be operated, after a few hours of training, by any soldier with some experience using video games. The army has no operator shortage.

1 thought on “The Strange Impact of Predator Losses

  1. That the Air Force “REQUIRES” it’s UAV pilots to be actual pilots, I believe this is the Air force’s keeping with it’s tradition of keeping and training pilots. Let’s face it…Once the Predator is in the air, You ARE watching a video game. While there are Situations such as Wind Sheer, Lift, and Turbulence that can make flying a UAV difficult, I believe that, on autopilot, the sensors aboard the craft are more than enough to compensate.

    There are missions, especially in Combat Support, Close In reconnaissance , and extremely difficult terrain (Mountain Regions in Afghanistan for instance) that a trained pilot could do a better job piloting a UAV around than a “CIVILIAN”. In those cases, you could have a class of “SUPER OPERATORS”, who could be on stand by, when these missions come up. But flying at 20000 over flat dessert, or over water, you cannot tell me that a trained pilot is required for those missions.

    I recently read that for pilots coming out of the USAF Pilot Training classes, where there is no flying Billits, are being offered 3 year “UAV/PREDATOR” slots. That means that someone with Wings, will spend the next three years flying and operating UAV’s. While that person may technically be a “PILOT”, that in no means gives anyone more skill in Navigation, Night Flying, Crosswind Landings, and Instument Flying, than someone trained from the start as a UAV Pilot.

    I respect any “COMBAT AVIATORS”, who put their life on the line, and require daily honing of skills to be the best aviators, flying against similar trained adversaries. But flying an oversized “Model Aircraft” once it leaves the ground, can be equally done by training. The “SEAT OF THE PANTS” feel will not be of benefit until UAV OPERATORS get feedback from the ship, and have the CONSOLE Tilt, Rise, Drop and Shift in sync with the actual aircraft. Given that most “PREDATOR/UAV” are being flown via Satelllite link (To increase range, and prevent Over the Horizon LOS) that the delay will make it impossible to give a REAL TIME feellng to the operator.

    Also they talk about “VIDEO GAME” skills, that may assist users in beliieving they are actually in the cockpit, instead of watching it. If you have been indoctrinated since birth in this culture, with it’s “SUSPENSION of BELIEF”, then you may be better trained that someone who has to learn this stuff from scratch.

    One last point. The Predator, which is a fine ship, is by no means a high performance aircraft. Compared the the Speed, Response and Control of a Modern High Performance Jet Aircraft, the Predator is more like a CESSNA 172. Unless they can make a actual “MANNED” Predator, which pilots can go up and feel the responsiveness of that machine, they again will not get the feeling for the aircraft, until after they pilot it. This same skill can be applied to a Private/Commercial pilot as well.

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