Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Predator proliferates

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems produced the MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in 1994.  It entered service in time to take a starring role in the so-called War on Terror.

It would spawn a much more powerful successor, and imitators all over the world - imitators that have now given potential US enemies much the same capabilities as our own forces.  China's CAIG Wing Loong UAV (shown below) is perhaps the best-known of these.

It's in service with Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as China.

Now comes news that a South African company has taken a European motorized glider and converted it into a Predator-equivalent UAV.  What's more, it should be very economical compared to mainstream offerings from major powers.

South African company Ultimate Unmanned has launched its new Viper 1000C unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which is based on a Stemme motor glider.

The company said the idea is to lease the platform and sell air time for missions such as surveillance, border patrol, anti-piracy, pipeline monitoring, counter-terrorism, mapping, anti-smuggling, wildlife monitoring etc. Ultimate Unmanned is targeting the Middle East, amongst other regions, as parent company Ultimate Aviation has an existing footprint across Africa and the Middle East.

. . .

The Viper 1000C ... is based on the Stemme S6, production models will be based on the Stemme S15 (which has been converted to the Patroller UAV by France’s Sagem), with the S6-based Viper to be used for training.

Endurance of the aircraft is 28 hours with external and internal extended endurance tanks. Maximum altitude is 25 000 feet. The 18 metre long, 1 100 kg aircraft has a cruise speed of 113 knots and is powered by a turbocharged Rotax 914 engine delivering 113 hp.

Flight is fully autonomous with automatic takeoff and landing and point to point waypoint navigation. Multiple payload options include high definition cameras, forward looking infrared systems and night vision systems. Two wing mounted hardpoints can carry up to 80 kg of payload, although total payload is up to 350 kg.

. . .

The ground based command and control centre is mounted in a 6 x 2.56 x 2 metre trailer that includes a kitchen, bunks, toilet, shower, weather station, pilot and payload operator stations, generator, water and fuel tanks and satellite communications link.

There's more at the link.

Like the Predator, the Viper 1000C will doubtless be capable of carrying Hellfire-class missiles such as South Africa's Mokopa, or the new, smaller Impi-S.

South African companies aren't the only ones looking to produce Predator-class UAV's.  The problem now is that so many countries are buying and fielding these aircraft that any US intervention in other parts of the world is going to become much more hazardous for the forces involved.  Until recently, the US had a monopoly on this sort of high technology.  That monopoly is now dead.  Those who agitate for US intervention in other countries are going to have to wake up to the fact that our forces are likely to suffer much heavier casualties than previously, because the weapons equipping their enemies are going to be much more capable than in the past.

This also means that US arms export restrictions are now so much pointless paperwork.  Saudi Arabia has already obtained Predator-equivalent surveillance UAV's from China.  The USA has refused to sell it armed UAV's because of human rights considerations, so it's reportedly talking to South Africa about buying armed UAV's from that country.  Effectively, any nation can now obtain armed UAV's at the drop of a moneybag, if not from one source, then from another.  So much for export restrictions!



Leatherneck said...

I've been increasingly surprised and more than a little concerned that US forces have not seen fit to produce and proliferate anti-drone weapons that are effective, affordable and reliable. Something along the lines of a SAW in both concept and perhaps mechanization might be a start.
I don't think we've even got ROEs in place for drone engagement. Let alone early warning, or cost-effective engagement capabilities.


Jonathan H said...

Yes, the aircraft are proliferating - but do they work as well as claimed? Are they sufficiently reliable to withstand the rigors of extended use and are spare parts available for them?
In my experience with comparing international weapons systems to their advertising and manufacturer claims, arms companies overseas make the stereotypical slimy, greasy, questionable American used car dealer look like a paragon of virtue.
The Chinese in particular are bad about this with high tech equipment - they are making defense electronics based on their experience with commercial electronics; since they are not adding redundancy and extra capacity, and they are not hardening them for temperature, dust, shock, etc they go through spare parts like water. With unmanned aircraft, this means preventable airframe losses.

Until the USA got serious about unmanned systems 15 years ago, the Israel was the major international supplier - including to the US with aircraft such as the Pioneer that the US Navy fielded in the 1980's. They are still a huge (but low profile) part of the market.

Glen Filthie said...

The quality of the Chinese product is going straight up, Jonathan. Peter is absolutely correct to be concerned about this.

Concern is warranted, fear is not. We have to change the way we think anyways. America can no longer govern the world or even police it. It is my scholarly opinion that WW3 is in the offing, and now would be a really, really be a good time to walk softly - and start working on the biggest friggin stick you can carry.

Anonymous said...

I'd be really shocked if this is remotely close to a Predator-equivalent in terms of surveillance capability. The cameras and optics on the Predator are something you would have to see to believe. Taking a look at the pods this UAV offers, they don't seem to be in remotely the same class. That said, if you are just looking for basic daytime and limited evening/night capability at moderate standoff ranges, this UAV can probably do the trick just fine.

David Lang said...


It doesn't really matter if these competitors are 100% the capability of the Predator, or only 40%, that 40% (probably at 20% the cost) still allows the enemy abilities that first-world militaries have never had to face before.

When you add to this tha ability to take (or make) a hobby class drone and have it fly into your base with the equivalent of a claymore or two on board, things get a lot messier

and before you talk about how drones are so noisy, remember that this modern computer capability can be applied equally well to fixed-wing models (including silent glider types)

producing such models with the availability of CNC routers and laser cutters is also far easier than it has ever been before (I have a CNC router for small parts that cost <$200 not counting the dremel and there is this kit that costs $350 plus the router ( )

With something like this to produce the parts, how hard would it be to create a WW-1 style fabric covered aircraft that used a car engine (most car engines have a better power to weight ratio than those early engines did), and load it up with a bunch of explosives and crash it into a base? being fabric covered it wouldn't show up well on radar.

modern manufacturing capabilities and software make things like this trivial

The Predator is a fancy, expensive system with lots of expensive electronics on it to allow it to be controlled from across the world, using off-the shelf components and looking for 'good enough' instead of 'best available' brings it within the reach of hobbiests, let alone governments/terrorists.

Will said...

If our ground based people aren't working on enemy drone hunter-killer drones, of various sizes for the appropriate distances from those drone's targets, someone is seriously incompetent.

Actually, that sounds like a really fun and challenging product. Wish I was in shape to pursue it, sigh...

Joe Katzman said...

USA wouldn't even sell armed Predator (MQ-1C) /Reaper (MQ-9B) drones to Italy & France -unarmed only. So they've created competition. Given low barriers to entry, expect more. Turkey, Israel, China all field armed UAVs. SA will follow but it usually takes longer than the hype. Etc.

Now, is that any danger to American forces? No. These things are sitting ducks against a regular military. Things like smaller suicide drones are actually more of a problem.