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Drone Wars: Wheeler Responds

Lots of discussion on the Predator/Reaper Class A post. And I take the point that the drones tend to crash on landing a lot and that that may be a major factor in the rate vice shootdowns. But Winslow remains undeterred:

Some interesting, and instructive, comments from some of those who reacted to your piece.  While I cannot but think that a high, straight, level, slow, unable to react Predator/Reaper would be a boon to radar SAM exporters by giving them heretofore untold (and unprecedented) success, it would be interesting to see what portion of hostile fire kills are from what sources for drones, and — as one commenter implied — what the drone was doing and how high when it was shot down.  I would love to see the data sources on that, plus the materials you used to make the statements you did.  I say that not to challenge you, but simply to get the data. Sometimes there’s some extraordinary stuff lurking there.  Sadly, in the blogging world, everyone seems to think they should shout out their opinions rather than showing their data and the documents backing them up.

As to backing up my assertion, above, implying the ineffectiveness of radar SAMs, I cite our GAO report on Desert Storm (attached and find it at http://​www​.gao​.gov/​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​/​1​9​9​7​/​n​s​9​7​1​3​4​.​pdf). There, SAMs were the least effective Iraqi air defense system, and, no, that was not because the F-117s took them out (a myth; it didn’t happen); read the report.

I also appreciate the link from a commenter yesterday of the video of a MiG shooting down a Georgian drone. Or was it Taliban air force?

I’ll work more agressively to find out the cause of the high loss rate from USAF sources. If anyone else out there has some gouge on this, please let us know via the Tip Line.

– Christian

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

xxx February 10, 2010 at 8:29 pm

odd they would waste a missile, instead of a short gun burst


topV7051 February 10, 2010 at 11:10 pm

What's to prevent a Predator or Reaper from carrying a Sidewinder or Stinger for self defense?


MCQknight February 11, 2010 at 12:07 am

They have…without much success.


The predator was two stingers instead of hellfires. I lol'd when he said "the Air Force…only has 20 Predators" Ah, how times change.

Anyway, I think a point that the video illustrates is that me putting an AIM-9 or AMRAAM on a Cessna is not going to make said Cessna any less likely to be shot down.


Drake1 February 10, 2010 at 11:39 pm

Fighter enthusiast's always love to cite that incident. Yes, UAVs cannot shoot down fighters YET…but that's besides the point. In any future near peer engagement, we would likely not be sending in UAVs by themselves-or even initially. People need to get over the fact that the days of exclusive manned fighter dominance are over. Future air forces are going to be mix of both manned and unmanned aircraft.


MCQknight February 10, 2010 at 11:57 pm

I don't think anyone disputes that UAVs will play a future role in air dominance. What I think the argument going through today's military is can current drones replace the roles that manned combat aircraft currently perform? When it comes to a low-tech adversary with no air defenses, sure. Why risk a man doing a job a simple Predator can easily do. But if you're talking about an Iran or North Korea, manned assets will play a much larger role simply because they're more survivable. However, there are those in the Air Force and Washington who think it's a good idea to replace F-16's and F-15's with Reapers. I think that such a strategy puts our ability to maintain Air Superiority at risk. I have no problem with replacing fighters with drones, just as long as the drone can do the same job as the fighter just as effectively. Until that day comes, we should keep pilots in the cockpits.


MCQknight February 10, 2010 at 11:58 pm

^really, it starred out cockpits?


MCQknight February 11, 2010 at 12:13 am

While it's madeningly lacking any real data, this Air Force time's article seems to imply that the lack of automated landing systems are not the primary cause of Predator/Reaper losses.


From the article :"Most recent Predator accidents have been linked to mechanical and electrical problems that aircrews could not overcome." In other words, having nothing to do with drone operator error.


Drake1 February 11, 2010 at 12:21 am

Western countries are not buying as many fighters as they used to. Even the AF itself projected a smaller force than the one that preceded it. The only difference was that they thought they were going to be replacing their F15 and F16s with a smaller stealth force. The AF could have perhaps had more legacy fighters if they had chosen not to go stealth or nothing at all.


Brandon February 11, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Thats the thing that scares me is I don't care how many stealth aircraft you got if your coming up against a force 4 or 5 times your size thats non stealh i'm pretty sure your going to lose.


Brandon February 11, 2010 at 10:29 am

Thats the thing that scares me is I don't care how many stealth aircraft you got if your coming up against a force 4 or 5 times your size thats non stealh i'm pretty sure your going to lose.


SMSgt Mac February 11, 2010 at 3:36 am

For a primer on UAV mishaps and their 'causes' see: http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA435063…

Christion, you've cited my favorite document for knocking sense into the Cruise Missile Cultist wing of the anti-Long Range Strike crowd, but the document fails to support an argument that radar SAMs are inherently ineffective, since
1. The AF et al capitalized on the long runup to the shooting phase to ferret out major emmiter threats for early neutralization through hard and soft means (including using sacrificial drones ala the Israeli Bekka Valley experience) . and
2. Took down the critial IADS network nodes on opening night that turned a very capable and then-modern French-designed IADS system into a disjointed and uncoordinated array of ADZs. (Continued Below)


SMSgt Mac February 11, 2010 at 3:37 am

(Continued From Above)
We haven't benefitted from a long, upclose, pre-war prep time since Desert Storm and I doubt a 'China-like' or 'Iran-sorta' opponent will give us one either.

Combine this point with my belief that it is impossible to get 'enough' situational awareness into a UAV to operate against a 'near-peer' or better opponent unless we have absolutely secure, very-high bandwidth, and reliable long range data links, and significant onboard Artificial intelligence. Since I do not believe in either the possibility of absolute security of data links OR AI, I don't see the manned aircraft being replaced anytime in the forseeable future. Supplemented-yes. Replaced-no.


Dan February 11, 2010 at 5:06 am

UAVs can't do everything, but just the fuel savings must be enormous.


DarthAmerica February 11, 2010 at 6:12 am

Just to get an idea of what industry thinks about UAS being limited to cheap RC planes…


…We are only in the toddler stage at this point and the child is going to grow fast. Very fast. There are a whole lot of aircraft in the inventory that COULD BE made to operate unmanned in the very near future without risk to pilots and with very high reliability rates when you consider the built in redundancies that Predator type UAVs don't have.

If it all seems Buck Rogers now it wont sooner than you think. And it won't be limited to just UAS either. A lot of people are worried about PAK FA. Should be worried about Skat…



PFC Brasel February 11, 2010 at 4:22 am

Isn't the UAV (in dummy language) just an RC plane with missile or cameras to protect and free up pilots so they can do their job? We will always need UAVs even if they can be easily shot down. The guys on the ground need the information that they provide. We also need comparatively cheap aircraft that we have on standby in case a mission comes up requiring a missile or such but not a human pilot. please correct me if I'm wrong.


Coolhand77 February 11, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Back to the posted vid, the Mig obviously pulls in behind and below the drone. Any forward firing weapon would have to make a U turn or be unable to lock on. Question, can a stinger be mounted backwards? Maybe something like a Javalin, with laser guidance? I mean, come on…he might have gotten the shot off at the drone and splashed it anyway, but making him eat a missile for his trouble would make it a less appealing hunt [nobody likes a turkey shoot when the turkeys shoot back].


Steve February 11, 2010 at 8:12 pm

The simple fact is that the operational loss rate for UAV's IS higher than manned aircraft, and yes, the losses usually happen during landing. The lack of 'seat of the pants' feel means that reactions to sudden crosswinds, etc will be slower than that of a pilot who actually feels the effect of the crosswind/whatever.

"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

The above irritates me because some idiot has no clue that there is a smidge of a difference between (10.2 mishaps/1k flights hrs) and (9.7 mishaps/100k flight hrs). Also, I'd be curious to see what the mishap rate is over the past five years, as you tend to have a much higher loss rate at the beginning of a program than in the mature stages. The F-15, by comparison, has been in the mature phase of it's life cycle for a veeeery long time, and every bug that will ever occur has already happened, and a fix and/or service bulletin has been created to eliminate the issue.

Also, the consider the fact that UAV's as a genre are new, and even our latest systems are still in the toddler stages of the genre lifespan. An F-15, by comparison, is a fully mature aircraft in the fighter-jet genre, and as such, is a highly-refined piece of machinery. Compare the roadside breakdown rate of a newer 1960 Ford Fairlane to that of a newer Ford Taurus….miles apart. Modern cars just don't break down on the side of the road anymore, unless they are very high-mileage or the maintenance has been neglected completely.

As for vulnerability to AA systems, UAV's have a lot going for them, especially the smaller tactical systems like the Shadow. They are small and have very low visual, thermal, and radar profiles. Everything that modern military uses is direct fire and guided in some manner, be it missile sensors or gun radars. So UAV's, which have small, highly efficient engines and are almost entirely constructed of composite, take good advantage of that weakness. As you get to the larger systems (Predator, Global Hawk) you see more exposure due to the larger airframes and engine sizes, though they fly at altitudes (35k and 65k service ceilings, respectively) that limit the threat to strategic level SAMs. MANPADS, and even most vehicle mounted systems like SA-15's and their ilk are not even a threat, except during takeoff/landing. SA-17 and better are a threat at mission altitudes.


MCQknight February 11, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Relating to an earlier post I made on the implimentation of the hellfire missle, I found an excellent article from flight global.


What's interesting in the article is the quote "The Hellfire, for example, uses a no-smoke propellant. At very low temperatures, the chemical mixture can debond from the rocket casing and crack, creating a explosion when ignited, says Steve Sherrick, a Boeing business development manager."

If a Reaper or Predator flew too high, causing the propellent in its hellfires to crack, and then tried to attack insurgents, the missile would explode while still attached to the drone, causing complete loss of aircraft. I wonder if this has occurred in Afghanistan.


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