By Steven R. Maher
“Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” have become the United States’ weapon of choice in the war on terror. Better known as “Predator drones”, these 8,000 remote controlled robots have devastated Al Qaeda, disrupted its chain of command, and played a large role in allowing American troops to be withdrawn from Iraq and now Afghanistan.
“According to data compiled by the New America Foundation from reliable news reports, 337 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have killed an estimated 1,953 to 3,279 people since 2004, of which 1,526 – 2,649 were reported to be militants,” reports one Internet web site. “This means the average non-militant casualty rate over the life of the program is 18-23 percent. In 2012 it was around 10 percent, down sharply from its peak in 2006 of over 600 percent.”
“”In 2012 the USAF [United States Air Force] trained more drone pilots than ordinary jet pilots for the first time,” says Wikipedia.
What are drones made off and how do they work? What are the moral implications of “targeted killings”?
Drones were first used for high altitude surveillance in the 1990s. After 9/11, the drones were modified to include ordnance and automate the military’s “kill chain” – “find, fix, track, target, engage and assess” against high value, fleeting and time sensitive targets.
There is a large amount of Internet drone literature, including the Wikipedia entry and the U.S. Air Force web’s “fact sheets” on the nine drones in usage. Robert Valdes has published on Lafayette.edu an insightful article on drones. In an effort to convey to readers the essence of how drones operate, we boiled down the information available, summarizing data to reduce verbiage. Military acronyms are not used extensively. We concentrated on the RQ-1 predators.
“Following 2001, the RQ-1 Predator became the primary unmanned aircraft used for offensive operations by the USAF and the CIA in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas,” says Wikipedia.
The MQ1-B is an armed RQ-1. The change in designation came when the reconnaissance-purpose RQ-1 was armed with two Hellfire missiles in 2002, making it a multi-purpose device (hence the “M” re-designation). Not long afterwards, on November 2, 2002, a predator was first used outside the Afghan war drone, to kill in Yemen Qaed Senyan Al-Harthi, the Al-Qaeda commander of the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
“The MQ-1’s capabilities make it uniquely qualified to conduct irregular warfare Operations in support of Combatant
Commander objectives,” says the air force.
How it’s built
Operated in clusters of four, the MQ1-B is made by General Atomics Aeronautical at a fiscal 2009 cost of $20 million for four Predators, the ground control station, and the satellite link up.
The MQ-1B is two yards high, nine yards long, and with a wingspan of roughly nineteen yards. It looks smaller than it appears in pictures. Miniaturization and nano-technology allow packing this small device with much hardware.
• The front compartment contains a “Multispectral Targeting System” that includes the Hellfire missile targeting system; an electrical optical infrared system which can see through haze, smoke or clouds; a laser designator; and a laser illuminator. There is also a GPS system and an ice detector. The equipment in this section “paints the target” by shooting a laser beam, which electronically puts a bull’s eye on the object by sending a pulse from the target to the two Hellfire missiles attached to the Predator. A computer generated “firing solution” calculates the distance, trajectory, wind speed, and other variables to hit the target with pinpoint precision.
• The second compartment contains a satellite communications antenna, a videocassette recorder, the de-icer, flight sensors, a receiver/transmitter, a “friend or foe” transponder, an avionics tray, and a communications sensor.
• The next third of the drone consists of a fuel cell, fuel cell assembly, and accessory bay.
• The fourth compartment of the plane contains the engine cooling fan; the oil cooler/radiator; secondary control module; two eight pound battery backups; a power supply; and a four cylinder, 115 horsepower engine similar to the engines used to power snowmobiles. At the rear is a two-blade propeller providing the drive and lift, and attached is a rudder, which is used to navigate the vessel.
The two fuel tanks are rubberized bladders in the fore and aft sections of the Predator, capable of holding 665 pounds (100 gallons) of 100-octane gasoline. The craft is lubricated by 7.6 liters of standard oil. The de-icer operates through microscopic “weeping holes” on the wings through which an ethylene glycol solution drips out to melt ice accumulated at the 25,000 feet altitude at which the MQ-1B flies.
The rib cage, surrounding the Predator like an elongated oval shaped skeleton, is made up of carbon/glass fiber tape and aluminum. The sensor housing and wheels are aluminum, the edges of the wings titanium. Between the rib cage and operating devices is a layer of carbon and quartz fibers with a mix of Kevlar. Further insulating the components are layers of foam and wood laminate; a sturdy fabric is sandwiched between these layers.
Empty of fuel and ammunition, the MQ-1B weighs 1,130 pounds, a very light aircraft. Fueled, armed, locked and loaded with two Hellfire missiles with a 450-pound payload, the Predator weighs 2,250 pounds, still a lightweight.
How it works
A drone can be disassembled into six parts and loaded into a single container, which can be transported to a war drone in a C130 Hercules, or larger transportation aircraft. It can be reassembled in four to eight hours. It takes 82 men or women to operate one four Predator active service unit over a twenty-four hour period. The flight begins, from a minimum 5,000 feet long surfaced runway, when an operator attaches a power cord to the Predator and turns the drone on.
The MQ-1B has a range of 700 miles and a cruising speed of 135 MPH. This means it must be launched from relatively near the war drone. It takes three to operate a drone: a pilot sitting in front of a computer screen using a flight stick to guide the aircraft, and two sensor operators. The pilot can see what the Predator sees in “real time”, i.e., instantaneously.
Once out of line of sight from its take off point, a satellite transfers control to an operator in the continental United States. “[I]f a predator is lost in battle, military personnel can simply ‘crack another one out of the box’ and have it up in the air shortly – and that’s without the trauma of casualties or prisoners normally associated with an aircraft going down,” writes Valdes. For a casualty conscious military, the predators are the perfect weapons; operators are not exposed to enemy fire. Click to continue »