Predator Drones and Other Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

A Predator drone operated by U.S. Office of Air and Marine (OAM)
John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Predator is a nickname given to one in a series of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or pilotless drones, operated by the Pentagon, the CIA and, increasingly, other agencies of the U.S. federal government such as the border patrol. Combat-ready UAVs are used mostly in the Middle East.

The UAVs are equipped with sensitive camera and spying equipment that provides real-time reconnaissance or intelligence. It can be equipped with laser-guided missiles and bombs. The drones are used with increasing frequency in Afghanistan, Pakistan's tribal areas and in Iraq.

The Predator, officially identified as the Predator MQ-1, was the first--and remains the most commonly used--pilotless drone in combat operations in the Balkans, Southwest Asia, and the Middle East since its first flight in 1995. By 2003, the Pentagon had about 90 UAVs in its arsenal. It's unclear how many UAVs were in the CIA's possession. Many were and still are. The fleets are growing.

The Predator itself has already entered the gallery of American lore.

Advantages of UAVs

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are smaller than jet aircraft, less expensive, and don't put pilots at risk when they crash.

At about $22 million apiece for next-generation UAVs (the so-called Reaper and Sky Warrior), the drones are increasingly a weapon of choice for military planners. The Obama administration's 2010 military budget includes approximately $3.5 billion for UAVs. In comparison, the Pentagon is paying more than $100 million apiece for its next-generation fighter jets, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (the Pentagon plans to buy 2,443 for $300 billion.

While UAVs require considerable ground-based logistical support, they can be piloted by individuals specifically trained to fly UAVs rather than by pilots. Training for UAVs is less expensive and exacting than for jets.

Disadvantages of UAVs

The Predator has been publicly praised by the Pentagon as a versatile and low-risk means of gathering intelligence and striking targets. But an internal Pentagon report completed in October 2001 concluded that tests conducted in 2000 "found that the Predator performed well only in daylight and in clear weather," according to the New York Times. "It broke down too often, could not stay over targets as long as expected, often lost communication links in the rain and was hard to operate, the report said."

According to the Project on Government Oversight, the Predator "cannot be launched in adverse weather, including any visible moisture such as rain, snow, ice, frost or fog; nor can it take off or land in crosswinds of greater than 17 knots."

By 2002, more than 40% of the Pentagon's original fleet of Predators had crashed or been lost, in more than half those cases due to mechanical failure. The drones' cameras are unreliable.

Further, PGO concluded, "Because it cannot evade radar detection, flies slow, is noisy, and must often hover at relatively low altitudes, the Predator is vulnerable to being shot down by enemy fire. In fact, an estimated 11 of the 25 Predators destroyed in crashes reportedly were caused by enemy ground fire or missiles."

The drones do put people on the ground at risk when the planes malfunction and crash, which they do, and when they fire their missiles, often at the wrong targets).

UAVs' Uses

In 2009, Federal Customs and Border Protection launched UAVs from an Air Force base in Fargo, N.D., to patrol the border between the United States and Canada.

The first flight of the Predator in Afghanistan took place on Sept. 7, 2000. Several times it had Osama bin Laden in its sights, its weapons ready to fire. Then-CIA Director George Tenet refused to authorize the strikes either for fear of killing civilians or of the political fallout from a missile that didn't hit its target.

Various Types of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

The Predator B, or "MQ-9 Reaper," for example, a turboprop drone built by General Dynamics subsidiary General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., can fly at 50,000 feet for up to 30 hours on a single fueling (its fuel tanks have a 4,000-lb. capacity). It can cruise at a maximum speed of 240 miles per hour and carry almost 4,000 pounds of laser-guided bombs, missiles, and other ordnance.

The Sky Warrior is smaller, with a weapons payload of four Hellfire missiles. It can fly at a maximum of 29,000 feet and at 150 miles per hour, for 30 hours on a single fuel tank.

Northrop Grumman is developing the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV. The plane, which completed its first flight in March 2007, has a wingspan of 116 feet (about half that of a Boeing 747), a payload of 2,000 pounds and can fly at a maximum altitude of 65,000 feet and at more than 300 miles per hour. It can cruise between 24 and 35 hours on one tank of fuel. An earlier version of the Global Hawk was approved for use in Afghanistan as far back as 2001.

Insitu Inc., a Boeing subsidiary, also builds UAVs. Its ScanEagle is an extremely small flying machine noted for its stealthiness. It has a wingspan of 10.2 feet and is 4.5 feet long, with a maximum weight of 44 pounds. It can fly at an altitude of up to 19,000 feet for more than 24 hours. Chang Industry, Inc., of La Verne, Calif., markets a five-pound aircraft with a four-foot wing and a unit cost of $5,000.

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Tristam, Pierre. "Predator Drones and Other Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Tristam, Pierre. (2020, August 26). Predator Drones and Other Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Retrieved from Tristam, Pierre. "Predator Drones and Other Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)." ThoughtCo. (accessed October 24, 2021).