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Drone Losses Debate

I got an interesting response on my post last week about the Air Force’s 2010 OCO request for $216 million to buy 12 MQ-9 Reaper drones.

Air Force officials say the money is needed to replace lost or damaged Reapers from combat operations.

In my post, I noted that at least the intention was demonstrated in the request that the USAF would rather lose almost a squadron of MQ-9s in combat rather than one F-15 and its crew.

Well, my good friend and longtime Pentagon budget watchdog Winslow Wheeler pinged me with this rejoinder:

I think you are missing an important point in your comment about the 12 drone losses replacing aircraft/pilot losses.  I strongly suspect drone accident rates per 1,000 flying hours are well above, multiples, of aircraft accident loss rates per 1,000 hours. As for hostile losses, drones are so ridiculously easy for any modern (I.e. non-Taliban) air defense to deal with that I suspect, if ever we meet same, they will be quickly attrited.  Are there any drone losses to hostile fire in Afghanistan?  If there is any such number, it compares to zero (I believe) for aircraft.  Wheeler out.

 Well, I did a little research on the first argument, and here’s what I found. Wheeler has a point in that the lifetime Class A ($1 million in damage or death) mishap rate for the Predator/Reaper — as of December 2009 — was “multiples” above that of, say, the F-15 fleet. It takes a little finessing, but combining the lifetime totals of flight hours for the RQ-1 Predator (which begins in 1997) and the MQ-9 Reaper (which starts in 2004), we get a Class A mishap rate of 10.2 per 1,000 flight hours. [CLARIFICATION: The services’ safety centers canlculate mishap “rates” per 100,000 flight hours, typically. But I made my calculations based on Winslow’s 1,000 hour benchmark. Running the numbers, the Predator/Reaper official mishap rate would be 9.7 per 100K flight hours — still very high] The Air Force says it lost a total of 57 Predators since 1997 and seven Reapers. Both aircraft have flown a total of nearly 655,000 flight hours.

Looking at the F-15 rate, USAF stats show over the lifetime (since 1972), the F-15 platform has a Class A mishap rate of 2.42, with 140 aircraft damaged. It’s lifetime destroyed rate is 2.04 with 118 aircraft lost — and that’s over a lifetime total of almost 6 million flight hours. But the stat that 43 pilots have died behind the stick of an F-15 and two of those were killed in fiscal 2009, speaks volumes to the family and loved ones of the fallen. Despite the high mishap rate of the MQ-9, no pilots are dead because of it.

But, yes, the Predator/Reaper mishap rate is more than five times that of the F-15. 

Now on the shoot down issue, I just can’t weigh in. I’ll look into how many of those purported losses in 2009 were from shoot downs or malfunctions. But I don’t think it’s “ridiculously easy” to shoot down a Predator/Reaper. Small target, very high and relatively quiet when they’re up there…But I just don’t have any info on that yet.

I’ll post Winslow’s response when I get it.

– Christian

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Todd855 February 9, 2010 at 8:22 pm

I think that is the whole point of drones/robots. To lose dozens if not hundreds and thousands, without any political backlash. US soldiers/airman and time is never on the US side in conflicts, so tech is only real advantage we have. If we did somehow face a modern opponent, the loss rates for would be substantial for manned and unmanned systems, but unmanned mean nothing politically. Only production rates are the issue, and that is something we know how to master. Imagine relentless waves of air and ground drones.

I would rather have 10k Reapers instead of 2k F35s, and so would Gates.


Mike SNow February 9, 2010 at 8:24 pm

Another way to compare (at least the machines, not the humans of course), is how much did the machines cost. Even at the higher loss rate are the drones in fact cheaper to use than the manned fighters?

On the loss rate against a sophisticated air defense system, aren't we going to eliminate that system before we let any large numbers of our machines into the space (exp. Iraq?).

One last point, we've been flying manned fighters on a large scale since WWII (70+ years), drones for 10-15 years. I would think we will get a lot better at using the technology over the next 10-20 years.


MCQknight February 10, 2010 at 2:58 am

You're assuming we'll be able to completely anihilate our enemy's air defense network and air force in a few days. To assume that air supremacy will be achieved quickly is dangerous thinking. Never assume your enemy will roll over and play dead. Don't think that our potential adversaries (i.e. Iran, North Korea) haven't looked at past U.S success in the air and developed strategies to counter that.

Also don't forget that although UAVs are high-flying, they can't deploy their primary weapon (the hellfire) at their max altitude. They must decend to an altitude where the hellfire is effective. This puts them in range of the latest generation Russian MANPADS, so even if an enemy's air defense network is destroyed, you'll still probably have a lot of guys running around with UAV-killer MANPADS.


Marcase February 9, 2010 at 8:24 pm

The RQ-1/MQ-9 isn't exactly stealthy, and can be detected by modern radar. And as a Russian Fulcrum near Georgia once proved, UAVs are very easy to shoot down.



Falcon February 9, 2010 at 3:45 pm

What he said was “drones are so ridiculously easy for any modern (I.e. non-Taliban) air defense to deal with”.

He’s not talking about losses in Afghanistan with towel-headed Arabs using Kentucky windage, he’s saying that a modern air defense system could shoot down drones all day long.


Boogel February 9, 2010 at 9:17 pm

Yeah, I'm sure that's what he was saying. The drones are only effective against an adversary without an air force. Any nation that has, say the industrial level of the west in the 1920s would be able to neutralize the drones.
What I would like to see is an example of a nation using these against a more equal enemy. I'm not sure it's possible. But I would like to at least see someone try it.


Thunder350 February 10, 2010 at 12:29 am

Against a more equal enemy the UAV's would have air support. Fighter jets in the skies dealing with any enemy fighters, bombers targeting anti-aircraft sites. And UAVs providing ground troops with a birds eye view. (UAV's would be lovely for Artillery teams =P).


ohwilleke February 9, 2010 at 10:34 pm

The morality rate for F-15 crashes is laudably low as a percentage of crashes.
The rate of fatal F-15 crashes is still about 1 per 2000 flight hours, however. Obviously, one doesn't fly 40 flight hours a week and an F-15 wasn't designed was safety as the exclusive design consideration.

Still, if driving were that dangerous per hour of operation, the lion's share of the nation's truck drivers would be dead in a few years.


TMB February 9, 2010 at 11:02 pm

What were the loss rates for the F-15 and F-16 during their first few years of operation? We're comparing flight hours of a plane that's been around for 30 years vs one that's been around for 10. I seem to recall a fair number of F-16s falling out of the sky during its first few years due to wiring malfunctions and other teething issues.


BEW February 9, 2010 at 11:43 pm

I seem to remember reading that the UAV's are provided with and without an Automated Landing System. The Air Force insists on buying them without the ALS; the Marines and Army insists on buying them with the ALS. I suspect the CIA buys them with ALS, but who knows. The story went on to say that the AF was having a higher crash rate than the other services. It would be interesting to find out how the services compare.


Boogel February 10, 2010 at 9:21 pm

Would the ALS change how the Air Force categorizes the aircraft? What I mean is if a AF pilot was flying a drone that had ALS would he get the same flight hours credit as if he were flying one without. I've read that there is a cultural resistance to the drones within the AF which has made it harder to recruit pilots for the program. Just curious if this is related.


CJ- February 9, 2010 at 9:02 pm

The UAV figure is misleading because the Predator can't land for crap. Aren't the vast majority of Predator losses because of bad landings? It's a design weakness. How many F-15s where lost on landing? The focus should be operational losses (shoot downs, engine failures, structural failures in flight, etc). Crashing because the Predator can't handle a crosswind on landing is only a transient issue. How many Reaper's have crashed on landing?

If the Predator landing losses are removed from the data and only operational losses are taken into consideration, the UAVs would likely come on top in a big way.


Valcan February 9, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Thats what ive heard the most problems happen when they land. They really arent very strong.

I think they need to make it a little tougher maybe or atleast work on the software for landings.


MCQknight February 10, 2010 at 2:51 am

If the landing accidents were removed, F-15's still kick the crap out of drones. First, if you remove the landing accidents for unmanned aircraft, you must do the same for manned platforms. Landings and takeoffs are the most dangerous period of flight (unless someone's shooting at you) for any aircraft. And second, the main reason drones crash is because they lose communication with ground stations. If your F-15's communications goes down for a few minutes, you're not going to fly into the side of a mountain.


topV7051 February 10, 2010 at 3:29 pm

And if the pilot of a drone loses SA and flies into the side of a mountain, he survives.


kim February 9, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Towelheaded Arabs live in The Middle East, not in Afghanistan.


Valcan February 10, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Accually alot of the alqiada are arabs. Its mostly arabs going jihad everywhere. And most arabs are suni.

Thats one of the things that causes such problems between the taliban, afghanies and alqiada. The leadership is made up mostly of arabs who look down on…well pretty much everyone.


Mack February 10, 2010 at 2:35 am

I think something that is being criticially overlooked in this debate is the cost and further risk of life that would be associated with the necessary CSAR operations that would be conducted if the drones lost were manned aircraft instead. I haven't even attempted to crunch the number of man hours, dollars, and combat action that would result if the 12 Reapers lost in action were instead manned platforms which would necessitate atleast a minimum CSAR effort.


Rescueman February 10, 2010 at 4:57 pm

It doesn't matter to us, we get Soldiers, Marines, SOF, allied military, even USAID workers during COIN ops like those in OEF. . . in addition to the Predator parts we pick up when they smack in. During conventional ops, we get those downed aircrew from the manned aircraft currently required to penetrate high threats (if we can, without CSAR-X, that will be alot more difficult).


Darthamerica February 9, 2010 at 9:53 pm

It’s not easy to shot down drones. Against a more capable opponent drones won’t operate in isolation. Like manned aircraft, C-130′s for instance, drones will operated in sanitized airspace or in conjunction with other assets that are designed to make sure they can operate with acceptable loss rates. Also, RQ-170 shows that the DoD/CIA are well aware of survivability issues and almost certainly have means to operate unmanned aircraft in contested airspace.



Leroy Hurt February 10, 2010 at 3:10 am

Not to mention: as unmanned systems proliferate, there'll be the accompanying tightening of accountability as commanders start to pay more attention to their budgets. That will mean a corresponding increased focus on accident-free operations.


Byron Skinner February 9, 2010 at 10:46 pm

Good Evening Christian,

All good points but I’m not sure of the relevancy of any of them. Really you are not comparing as they say apples to apples here.

A more honest comparison might be fighter air craft of the 1930′s and the early WW II fighters. A hobby out west is aircraft archeology, where crashed WW II aircraft are found mainly out in the dessert but two years ago two fisherman in a well used cit lake using a Hummingbird fish locator system found a WW II TBD Devastator in the lake, it had been there since 1945.

The RQ/MQ 1′s and 9′s are still in the lower stages of evolution, the same as the first mono planes of the pre WW II era were. Crashes and fatal accidents both in the air and on the ground were very common and accepted as the price of advancing technology, there was a war to win and people accepted that.

I’m very sure the Predator/Raper air frames are not the final answer here again I will refer to the article in Popular Mechanics by Joe Pappalardo. What Mr. Pappalardo describes as taking place in ten to fifteen years is not even on anybodies radar screen yet.

All that we are seeing here is the displacement of one technology with a newer technology. I remember in the 1960 when the 5.56mm bullet replaced the 7.62mm bullet for the basic service rifle, one would have though that the heavens opened up and swallowed the US Army. Well the 7.62mm (although it is being nudged by the Finish .338 Lupia round for the sniper role) is still around as a speciality round but the 5.56mm is still the reigning service round in NATO.

I would suspect that by the end of the decade the Predator/Reaper will have been replaced.

Byron Skinner


DarthAmerica February 10, 2010 at 4:44 am

Also consider that industry is marketing much more high end UCAVs for introduction in the next decade. THings similar to X-45/47 and even proposals to have unmanned versions of aircraft like F-35. Heck, the DoD already operates QF variants of F-4 and F-16 ect with very high reliability. UAV technologies will not stay stagnant. Moreover, you have to consider what Reaper and Predator are designed to do. Cost is a huge factor and primary benefit. They don't have the same level of systems redundancy and reliability built in as manned aircraft do ON PURPOSE. Consider much more sophisticated UAVs like Global Hawk which have much lower loss rates.



Dientboy February 10, 2010 at 6:06 am

A few things to consider:
- AF requires manual landings vice automated; bricks Predators/Reapers on landing at three times the rate of the Army (or so I have heard).

- It is not a disaster to crash a UAV, so we use them differently. In extreme situations (UAV has eyes on a high-value target; no other birds are around), we have flown UAVs to beyond bingo fuel and crash-landed them because we believed the value of the target exceeded the value of the UAV. This would never happen for a manned aircraft.

- We devote far more maintenance hours per flight hour to manned aircraft, build in more redundancy, etc (along the lines of DarthAmerica).

- @MCQknight on Predators crashing into mountains: I've never flown a Predator, but the USMC's Raven B (which I have flown) — a throw-away UAV with 50 minute endurance — can be programmed to avoid mountains even when it doesn't have comms with the base station. I really doubt that's the issue.

Overall, think the stats are a combination of (a) technology and employment TTPs are relatively immature and (b) we don't care as much about losing UAVs, so we take more risks with them.


grumpy February 10, 2010 at 3:35 pm

The loss rate has not changed significantly since the 1980's and I really don't see it changing much in the outyears.


Carl February 10, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Are you comparing an F-15 mission to a UAV? I'd rather have 10 F-15s to fight with than 100 UAVs.


Rescueman February 10, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Really? In OEF, with 100 Preds, I could support nearly every battalion CC and sometimes down to individual companies engaged in combat. You'd want 10 F-15s rather than that? I assume you mean F-15E's cause C models would just be able to make noise. 10 F-15E's could generate about 12 two-ship orbits of 4 hrs each over 24 hour period, with trip turning the jets. 100 Preds, could like produce at least 90 18-24-hour orbits over the same 24 hour period. Each F-15E could carry alot more bombs which likely aren't needed, since one is usually plenty in a COIN or CT scenario.

Come on dude, I agree that the OSD led destruction of AF manned conventional air power isn't good for the US, but we need to be able to do both, not one or the other - when the situation suits each.


Valcan February 10, 2010 at 5:26 pm

The predator and reaper drones are in there earliest stages. Like other posters have said the technology is still maturing. and its used differently from other aircraft.

I think in someways the UACV's the navy is working on are more of what we may see in the future. I figure well see not robot army vs ronbot army but what we have today. UCAV's and unmanned vehicles supporting human troops and vehicles tripling there firepower and survivability.


Chris February 10, 2010 at 6:58 pm

Consider that what eventually crippled the Luftwaffe and Japanese naval air was not a lack of machines, but the attrition of good pilots.


Drake1 February 10, 2010 at 7:20 pm

The Predator doesn't have an auto landing system like the Army's Warrior. I'm more interested to see how those Warrior accident rates pan out in a couple years.

Near peers would likely be able to shoot down many UASs, but those systems liklely wouldn't be the first in. F22s are the new F117 that soften up the defenses so that legacy aircraft and UASs can operate later.


CreasePanther17 February 10, 2010 at 4:15 pm

In the latest Popular Mechanics, it discusses the problem of landing a Reaper and how they are going about to fix it. Most of the Reaper losses are from malfunctions and landing gone wrong from oscillation.


Mike February 10, 2010 at 9:23 pm

Why not rig them so they can be destroyed by the operator if they are lost for any reason to prevent valuable technology from the enemy?


DarthAmerica February 11, 2010 at 6:02 am

The facts are that comparing UAS lose rates to manned platforms is like apples and oranges.

a. Different design philosophy
b. Different TTPs/CONOPS
c. From the system level perspective immature technology just getting out of dev
d. designed with post cold war threat matrix in mind


guarddog February 11, 2010 at 4:16 pm

So much discussion from so few facts and no first hand knowledge of the subject.


Jon February 11, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Some maths for ohwilleke:

The F-15 loss rate over life is one every 50,847 hours and 24 minutes.
The fatal loss rate is one every 139,534 flying hours.

The Predator/Reaper loss rate is one every 10,234 hours.

UAVs have a role to play, but it's a niche role. Sensor limitations mean that they will never have the situational awareness you get with a man in the cockpit, even when other weaknesses (slow speed, bandwidth consumption, etc.) have been solved.


Thunder350 February 11, 2010 at 7:10 pm

The UAV's are still fairly new. Technology gets more advanced everyday. Just wait and see. Soon UAV's will out perform the best manned aircraft, and be 10x cheaper after you add up the aircraft, pilot training, etc. And we wouldn't have to worry about sending them into harms way when theirs no one on board the craft.


nicolas February 14, 2010 at 6:58 am

"It’s lifetime destroyed rate is 2.04 with 118 aircraft lost — and that’s over a lifetime total of almost 6 million flight hours.”

I dont understand : are you talking of a rate (loss/time unit), or of actual losses ?
If you talk about rate, why do you mention its over "6million flight hours”…. since its a rate, it’s not supposed to go up with the length.

the whole thing seems so superficial, who has time for this ?


kuzindwight May 12, 2010 at 10:42 pm

The problem is that some, such as the JCS, advocate the era of manned fighter could be over. If the force replaces manned aircraft on a one for one ratio, which is the plan, then they will fail just from reliability faster than man aircraft. This will increase, not decrease, budgets which is one of the driving rationales for the use of UAS.

These things fail at greater rates than manned aircraft in the current low air threat conflict. When intentionally targeted by a peer or near peer nation, they will fall from the sky like rain. The US will lose air superiority because we would rather invest in UAS than advanced fighters
http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/europe/04/22/georgi… http://www.strategypage.com/dls/articles/Predator…


CK757 May 13, 2010 at 11:34 pm

Remote controlled aircraft have had and logically will have a higher loss rate than manned aircraft. At least that's the history.

Today's (whatever you call them) remote controlled aircraft are still fairly primitive by manned military aircraft standards. As "computing power" is developed/refined, and available to meet military requirements for reliability and environment, things will change.

A pilot in a manned aircraft is still better able to respond to "unplanned" or "unexpected" events than is a remote controlled aircraft.

It's still cheaper to replace an unmanned aircraft than a manned aircraft and it's pilot/crew. Not to mention the replacement pilot/crew time to train, etc.

While the military has been "fooling around" with remote controlled aircraft since WWII, it's only in recent times that serious effort and resources have been utilized. We are a the position with remote controlled aircraft that in some ways is similar to that of jet aircraft in the early 1950's.

The past reluctance of the air force and military to commit major efforts towards development and common use of remote controlled aircraft was mainly based upon a preference for manned aircraft. The loss of Joe Kennedy's son in a experimental remote control aircraft program towards the end of WWII was an early setback that had far reaching and long lasting effects.

It's interesting to note that, outside of the military, and government sponsored R&D efforts, etc., use of remote controlled aircraft beyond the operator's "line of sight" is against the law in the US. Further restrictions include a weight limit of 55 pounds without government permit/license.


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