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From the category archives:


Got a great comment from a reader on last week’s video post on the Predator that shot at a MiG-25 with a stinger. For those of you who don’t jump into the comment gladiator pit, here’s what “Arcane” wrote about that little incident:

I was at an official briefing where this issue was discussed. The drone in question here was actually the second drone shot down by that Iraqi pilot.

The first drone was operating very near the northern border of the southern No Fly Zone and was annoying the Iraqis. After numerous attempts by other pilots, Saddam sent his best MiG pilot in to knock it out. The pilot waited months for the perfect opportunity, and jumped the border when their radar systems showed all Allied aircraft out of missile range. He accelerated to a supersonic speed, got just close enough to get a missile lock on it, fired the missile, and high tailed it out of there. Literally the minute he crossed the border of the No Fly Zone, every allied aircraft did a 180 and started chasing him, but he made it back across that border before we could get in missile range. His missile impacted

This really pissed us off, so we got the idea of luring the pilot with another drone back into the airspace, but this time we decided that it was time to ruin that Iraqi pilot’s flight suit and we equipped it with a Stinger missile. The pilot pulled the stunt again a few months later, and still knocked out the drone, however the missile the drone fired gave the Iraqis the ebby jeebies and they never attempted a drone shoot down again.

This may be an old story to some, but it was new to me. Think how drone tactics have evolved even since those rudimentary days of armed UAVs…Totally awesome!

– Christian

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An alert reader pinged me on the Tip Line about another, older vid, of a MiG shooting down a Predator.

I love it that the Predator shot back. And I am also intrigued by the question one reader posed as to why the pilot wouldn’t just go to guns on the drone but instead used an expensive air-to-air missile.

– Christian

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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

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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

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The Air Force is asking Congress for $216 million in CY 2010 Overseas Contingency Operations funds to purchase 12 MQ-9 Reaper drones to replace Predators that have been lost in combat. 

That seems like an awful lot of Predator/Reapers falling out of the sky for either mechanical or hostile fire reasons, and I’d be interested for DT readers to help track down the incidents if they’ve been reported. The loss rate brings up an interesting point about the entire idea of UAV use in highly sensitive strikes: better to lose 12 planes that cost about $12 million each (according to USAF budget materials, and that’s excluding support equipment) and are flown from a container outside Las Vegas than to lose almost a squadron of attack pilots and their planes in one year. 

But I’m also worried about the idea that these downed MQ-9s are falling into enemy hands and could be reverse engineered for countermeasures, etc. We already heard of incidents where the bad guys are tapping into UAV comm links — God forbid they’re tinkering with the sensors and pinging the Norks or China on how to counteract them. Might be far fetched, but worth thinking about. 

Here are the specs for the Reaper the USAF wants to buy: 

The MQ-9 Reaper aircraft is a single-engine, turbo-prop remotely piloted aircraft designed to operate over-the-horizon at medium-to-high altitude for long endurance sorties. The aircraft is being designed primarily to prosecute critical emerging Time-Sensitive-Targets (TSTs) as a radar, EO/IR, and laser desginator-based attack asset with on-board hard-kill capability (hunter-killer) while performing Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Target Acquisition (ISR TA). In the hunter-killer role, the aircraft will employ fused multi-spectral sensors to automatically find, fix, and track ground targets (Automatic Target Cueing (ATC), Target Location Accuracy(TLA), Metric Sensor and other capabilities) and assess post-strike results.

 Also, as if the JTAC/CCT community couldn’t get any more high speed, the Air Force is asking for $3.2 million to purchase 11 WASP micro air vehicles – those wicked little Aeorvironment throwable drones that peek over the next ridge. The Air Force says the drones will allow: 

Battlefield Airmen to rapidly adapt to the dynamic war fighting environment of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). The system provides increased situational awareness in a combat environment, enables ground-based Battlefield Airmen to find and track time-critical targets, and provide bomb damage assessment and force protection for forward-deployed troops. 

So cool… 

– Christian 

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I wasn’t able to jump on this yesterday due to some Military​.com commitments, but there was an interesting piece in the New York Times about the huge amount of UAV data pouring into military hard drives — so much that the USAF, for example, is drowning in it.

It got me to thinking that the services are exactly right to store all that drone feed footage no matter how boring it might be. The flight of a Reaper drone from its impoundment in Jalalabad to its target in Miran Shah might be just rocky paths and scrub brush, but to a skilled analyst, the tell-tale differences from each pass over a span of time might mean the difference between detecting a new “rat line” and ignoring a key Taliban infiltration route.

A group of young analysts already watches every second of the footage live as it is streamed to Langley Air Force Base here and to other intelligence centers, and they quickly pass warnings about insurgents and roadside bombs to troops in the field.

But military officials also see much potential in using the archives of video collected by the drones for later analysis, like searching for patterns of insurgent activity over time. To date, only a small fraction of the stored video has been retrieved for such intelligence purposes.

The story seems to indicate that there’s a shortage of analysts to evaluate the video and pinpoint the intel that might prove useful — especially if it’s second or third order data.

Air Force officials, who take the lead in analyzing the video from Iraq and Afghanistan, say they have managed to keep up with the most urgent assignments. And it was clear, on a visit to the analysis center in an old hangar here, that they were often able to correlate the video data with clues in still images and intercepted phone conversations to build a fuller picture of the biggest threats.

But aren’t there software solutions that can process the footage and pick out the things analysts might be interested in? I mean, the National Geospacial Intelligence Agency doesn’t pour over hard copies of Key Hole satellite shotsKestrelTest with a magnifying glass anymore, do they?

But while the biggest timesaver would be to automatically scan the video for trucks and armed men, that software is not yet reliable. And the military has run into the same problem that the broadcast industry has in trying to pick out football players swarming on a tackle.

So I dredged up a company I’d seen one year at a trade show that developed software to run in the background of UAV feeds. The application pinpoints vehicles, personnel and other objects interesting to the operator and tracks them in a color coded box. Seems to me the same could be developed for a passive application where the video footage is just run through the processor after the mission and the software picks out certain clips that contain the clues analysts program in.

I can see the article’s point — the AF is developing new software to get key info to the field from drone passes faster to the operator on the ground…but what about that change analysis piece?

Here’s a cool analysis test from the Kestrel web site.

– Christian

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The Air Force has staked its future on unmanned aerial vehicles commonly referred to as drones. 

This week information became public that video feeds from the drones used in Afghanistan had been intercepted. One defense official openly stated that there is a risk when using drones given they are remotely operated and use bidirectional controls based on the video feed and other data that is sent to remote locations that operate the drones. 

Those characteristics are not the problem! While the DoD scurries to encrypt the drones video feeds in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to eliminate this leak, it goes to prove once again that Security is built in and should not be bolted on later.  Decade-old components currently in use are and will be a challenge to encrypting the feeds. 

The Global Information Grid (GIG) in operation for over 25 years old, is not up-to-date and does not have the latest technologies like many of the militaries systems. When the GIG and other systems were designed and placed into operations, cyber attacks and the threat of cyber warfare was nowhere near the threat it is today and not considered to be part of the critical design criteria.

This is one example why we estimated the DoD will need to spend approximately $65 billion between 2009– 2012 to address cyber attack vulnerabilities and upgrade their critical systems.

FACT:    December 2008 — U.S. military personnel in Iraq discovered copies of Predator drone feeds on a laptop belonging to a Shiite militant.

FACT:    SkyGrabber a commercially available software package from Russian company SkySoftware was one of the applications that enabled the capture of the video feeds.

FACT:    Drones account for 36% of the planes in the service’s proposed 2010 budget.

Kevin Coleman

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