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Ground-stinging drones.

When drones--at the beginning essentially designed for intelligence missions--came of age and started to become reasonably reliable, it was obvious that someone was sooner or later going to think about arming them. Unsurprisingly aeroplanes during the First World War followed a similar application path as they were first used to spy over enemy lines for artillery spotting missions and it is only a little later that it occurred to someone that the aircraft's observer could also toss a few bombs overboard. On board guns came even later.

There essentially are two groups of modern ground attack drones. The first includes observation drones which, being large enough, could be modified to carry missiles, launch them and return home. The second group of drones are built with a one-way ticket to the target. In a certain way, with the latter category, we have gone full circle since the Fieseler Fi 103--better known as the V1--which was created to terrorise the populations of London and Antwerp during latter part of WWII.

The V1, however, was not built to hit a particular target. It simply couldn't have since it had no real guidance device worthy of this denomination to provide it with the necessary accuracy. Its circular error probable was pretty much the size of a large town. The autopilot was based on a crude compressed-air powered gyroscope that enabled the aircraft to vaguely remain on the course set by its catapult launch rail in spite of winds, while a ram-air odometer determined the moment at which the engine had to be chopped and the aircraft put on a steep dive course.

For more accurate attack, its was quite clear that some form of manned guidance was necessary. This came in the form of yet another German WWII device in the form of the Henschel Hs 293 (also designated He 293) that used a very simplified radio command operated through a joystick. However, this was a rather shorter range affair, having a reach of just over ten kilometres. Even if its radio command link were longer, it is the operator's eye sight that would have posed a problem in any case (the weapon was designed to attack ships from an aircraft). It must be remembered that the invention of the transistor was still far away and that radios were based on cumbersome energy-hungry tube valves.

After the war, many ground-controlled devices were tried out, but none really proved satisfactory. Electronics still had a long way to go before they were sufficiently reliable to find their way into a small remote-control aircraft that could be flown beyond its operator's line of sight, which also presupposed a return from the aircraft to enable its pilot to at least know its position, let alone see the overflown terrain.

At this point in the article, the reader may quite rightly wonder what difference there might be between a drone and a cruise missile. Well, basically none, except that the cruise missile is never asked to fly back home. It is also required to move a lot faster, in a very hostile environment and at very low altitude to avoid detection by air-defence radars. It also cannot, by its very stealthy nature, return pictures of what it sees on its way (at least not before the last seconds before impact). In other words all the opposite of an attack drone, which is essentially allowed to fly in fully controlled air space, at a high altitude to remain out of light weapons' reach, and send back images of the ground to clearly identify the target before attacking it. So basically, yes, the cruise missile and the drone have much in common except for their respective operating environments.

The leading nations in the drone design discipline are unquestionably Israel and the United States, although even in the latter's case ties with Israel seem to be unavoidable.


To anyone acquainted with modern warfare, the mention of a drone attack is immediately associated with the name Predator. The Predator was originally designed by General Atomics as a medium altitude, long endurance (male) intelligence-gathering aircraft, which extensively draws on an earlier design known as the Gnat. While the latter is also a General Atomics product, its roots are ironically found in another company called Leading Systems owned by an Israeli engineer before he sold it out to General Atomics.

Because the armed Predators are primarily operated by the CIA, their operations tend to be hidden under a heavy cloak of secrecy. However the fact that the CIA already tested the waters of armed drones with the Gnat is now becoming more a strong belief than a faint suspicion. Although there is still no tangible proof behind this, there is now every reason to believe that the Predator was designed with the weapon carrying option right from the outset, because adding twice 50 kilos worth of Hellfire missile under the wings can hardly be accepted as a simple afterthought. Anyhow, the Predator had its maiden flight in 1994 and was ready to be put through its initial paces over Kosovo in 1995. Since, a wealth of electro-optical and electromagnetic sensors has been developed to provide very high resolution images.

The event that really sparked off the use of the Predator-Hellfire tandem was the attack on New York's Twin Towers and the subsequent "war against terrorism". The above-mentioned tandem is almost perfect: the Predator flies high and is therefore hardly heard from the ground, while the Hellfire's ability to hit vehicle-sized targets at supersonic speeds barely gives their targets any time to realise what is happening to them: the missile travels its maximum range of eight kilometres in just over 17 seconds.

Pushing the art one step further was the MQ-1C Gray Eagle (which was initially known as the Warrior or Sky Warrior). This is slightly larger, but has four hardpoints instead of two, and had its first flight in 2004, which is ten years later that the Predator. Its Rotax engine is replaced by a 165 hp Thielert heavy fuel engine to lift off the 1,630 kilos against the Predator's 1,020. Endurance also took a major leap, from 24 hours to 30.

In spite of a strong family resemblance and a different tail treatment, the Reaper (maiden flight in 2001) is a considerably different affair, being powered by a Honeywell TPE331-10 turboprop engine uncorking some 900 horsepower. The maximum take-off weight is resolutely above the four-tonne mark at 4,760 kilos (although a modified landing gear has allowed pushing this limit to 5.3 tonnes, which shows that the airframe had formidable growth potential reserves). While it can fly at 50,000ft, its operational altitude remains at 25,000ft, but with higher speeds and weight, endurance takes a punishment by being limited to 14 hours. The Reaper can carry up to 14 Hellfires, or four Hellfires and two 5001b Paveway II laser-guided bombs.

Almost doubling the Reaper's maximum take-off weight at over 8.2 tonnes, comes the Avenger (which, to confuse everybody, is known as the Predator C in the General Atomics nomenclature). But we here reach the realm of pure attack drones with which it is observation that that becomes the option (see further below).


When it comes to Intelligence and military operations, it is very difficult to know exactly what happens in Israel. What is sure-is that Israel has intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drones that are openly declared as potential weapon carriers.

As early as 2007--at the Paris Air Show of that year to be precise, where the photos herewith were taken by the author--Israel Aerospace Industries made no fuss about openly displaying the weapon-carrying capability of its Heron TP--also known as the Eitan (Steadfast, or Strong in English). Described as a male, the Heron TP nevertheless has the ability to fly at 54,000 feet, therefore away from commercial aircraft air lanes.

Although it has the same general configuration as the Heron, the TP is quite a different bird, being powered by a 900 hp Pratt & Whitney PT6A and much heavier at 4,650 kg maximum take-off weight. In fact one could say that the heron TP is to the Heron what the Reaper is to the Predator.

The Eitan is said to have made its first flight in prototype form as early as 2004, but there is a lot of speculation as to the actual configuration of the aircraft at the time. It was displayed at the 2007 Paris Air Show boasting a weapons load of two quadruple packs of Lahat missiles--each pack presented right under the underwing-and-boom hardpoints of the aircraft.

Again, like anything that regards operations in Israel, nothing can be affirmed, but the Eitan is alleged to have taken part in air-to-ground strikes in 2009 against arms convoy in Sudan and heading for Gaza. Earlier this year (2012) an Eitan crashed in an orange grove during tests. Eight months later, the causes of the crash had been identified--a" malfunction in the adhesives in the wings" according to the Jerusalem Post. The type was allowed to resume operations later.

The Eitan is currently offered to a number of Nato countries with some of them eyeing the weapons-carrying capability of the aircraft, although armed drones are still very much a taboo subject in certain parts of the world, and particularly in Europe, with some considering it immoral to be able to kill whilst comfortably sitting in an air-conditioned ground control station thousand of miles away. These same people would obviously need to be shown footage of terrorists quietly wrecking havoc whilst comfortably launching mortar rounds from the protective environment afforded by a schoolyard in Afghanistan. According to Reuters, the Obama administration has authorised 239 covert drone attack missions in three years, which is five times more than the G. W. Bush administration.

It was not long before Elbit announced its own male, in the form of the 1,180-kilo Hermes 900. In terms of gross weight it belongs to the one-tonners, therefore to the league of the Heron and Predator. It was shown in full mock-up form at the 2007 Paris Air Show and took to the air in December 2009. During a potential deal with a Nato customer against the Heron, it was alleged that the Hermes 900 had the capacity to carry weapons under two inner hardpoints, although certain sources told the author that the aircraft never has demonstrated a weapons carrying capacity, in spite of its four underwing hardpoints. The Hermes 900's payload capacity is limited to 350 kg. It has been ordered for ISR duty by Israel, Chile, Colombia and Mexico.


One of the latest newcomers on this particular scene is the Seeker 400 developed by Denel Dynamics, which was displayed in mock-up form at the 2011 Africa Aerospace and Defence show in Cape Town with a pair of Mokopa air-to-ground weapons under its wings. While it was announced at the time that the aircraft was to have its maiden flight during the first quarter of 2012, this had not yet happened at time of writing though a press release announced that the event was to take place "shortly".

Interestingly, the company humbly describes the Seeker 400 as surveillance aircraft with an "armed reconnaissance" capability. Tipping the scales at 49.8 kilos and with a calibre of 178 mm, the semiactive laser-guided Mokopa is little else than the South African equivalent of the Hellfire missile originally designed by Kentron, now Denel Dynamics, for use by the RooivaLk ground and armour attack helicopter.


Still within the category of the "optional attacking capability drones" are the rotary wing variety, particularly with the advent of guided rockets, which, de facto, are missiles--as some tend to forget. Due to their lighter weight, Hydra-type rockets would have been ideal weapons for many light drones, exactly as they have been used on light general aviation aeroplanes and at least envisaged on hang gliders.

However, as we all know, rockets are not exactly very accurate weapons and are thus essentially used for wide-area "clean-up" operations rather than pin-point attacks. A miss on a target would automatically trigger counter-fire and the probable destruction of the launcher drone as a rocket rarely is discreet when fired.

The advent of the so-called guided rocket will probably change the way the lighter drones can be armed.

The leading guided rocket today is the 70mm Hydra-based APKWS, an impossible acronym for "advanced precision kill weapon system". To cut a very long story short, the APKWS got cancelled in early 2005, resurrected later that year as the APKWS II, eventually won by BAE Systems in 2006 to see the programme transferred from the US Army to the US Navy in 2008. The weapons system finally seen operational was used by the US Marine Corps in Afghanistan in 2012.

In September this year (2012), and under an urgent operational requirement, the US Navy awarded a contract to BAE Systems to integrate the APKWS to the Northrop Grumman Fire Scout MQ-8B helicopter drone.

The other Hydra rocket conversion comes from Raytheon, in cooperation with Emirates Advanced Weapons and is known as the Talon. Like the variety described above, the Talon endeavours to keep costs as low as possible and use as much of the existing rocket system, including the simple nature of its launchers. The weapon was put through its paces with a series of firing tests from an Emirati Apache in the United Arab Emirates in October 2011 and is now qualified for use from the Apache both in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The firing included tests against a moving target from a range of four kilometres. The Talon is given as having a useful range of between 1,200 and 6,000 metres against light armour.

Next on the list of potential Hydra-based candidates for use from drones is the ATK Gait However, the programme was apparently put on the back burner a few months ago.

Mention was made earlier of the Viper Strike, a weapon that was taken over from Northrop Grumman by MBD/Vs United States operations. The weapon has been in operation for a while now and features dual laser and GPS guidance. It is a simplified version of the earlier Brilliant Anti-Tank weapon from which it retains its vertical strike characteristic but sees its combination of sophisticated acoustic-cum-infrared sensors (hence the unusual wingtip probes on the cruciform surfaces of the Bat) replaced by GPS-aided laser guidance. It was first launched in anger from a Hunter drone (see box) in 2007 in Afghanistan and said to have been successfully used against men installing a roadside bomb.


One-way ticket drones, if one excludes the V1 example mentioned at the beginning of this article, are not exactly new, and several abandoned examples exist. They used to be called "loitering" munitions and are primarily designed as anti-radar weapons. The production of types of weapons never reaches impressive figures nowadays because word of their use in a battlefield spreads at the speed of light. The simple use of one will immediately cause an enemy to shut down all his radars at once over a large area, which is exactly the result that is required to obtain air supremacy and allow one's own aircraft--and even better drones--to fly in almost total impunity over an occupied territory.

Those weapons, it must be remembered have the ability to dive onto a radar system that has long shut down its transmitter, but the position of which was recorded and memorised by the drone--or by another drone or EW aircraft--and passed along. Anti-radar weapons must rank very high on military nuisance factor charts because radars have to be shut down well before the latter can cue electro-optical air-defence sensors to lock onto them.

One of the oldest loitering anti-radiation (as they are also called) drones to have reached operational status is the Israeli Harpy. The type also enjoyed considerable export success having been exported to India, South Korea, and Turkey, but also to China which was not to the taste of certain nations.

There had been rumours of a Harpy 2 in the early 2000s, but this did not materialise, although with hindsight one realises that this actually is what became known as the Harop. The Harop was unveiled by IAI at Aero India in 2009, but it is really its presentation at the Paris Air Show that year that gave it a significant worldwide impact.

Calling it Harpy 2 would have actually been wrong, since the Harop is a dramatically different bird, being much larger, visually different with double the range (1,000km) and a six-hour endurance. The Harop is canister-launched, carries a chin-mounted electro-optical turret and gives the anti-radiation denomination its fun significance over anti-radar by being able to lock onto radio emissions such as those produced by important command post vehicles.

Downscale one finds the Switchblade. While the existence of this little tube-launched drone had been an open secret for quite a while, it still is, quite incomprehensibly, a very hush-hush programme, although no blame can be put on its designer, Aerovironment. In spite of the fact that the author attended a convention on drones in Paris in 2007 during which an Aerovironment official mentioned the testing of the Switchblade, the author's visit to that manufacturers stand at the recent Eurosatory event yielded poor results in terms of obtainable data and illustrations.

Basically, the drone comes folded in a small tube (about 12cm in diameter and 35 to 40cm in length) and when ejected in the rough direction of the target area (typically a sniper or a mortar operator), it immediately deploys its aerodynamic surfaces and start its electric motor. The Switchblade could be described as a long-range, guided, anti-hidden target grenade. When the drone reaches a sufficient height, its operator can spot the target on the control screen and command the drone to take its lethal dive.


Unsurprisingly, when it comes to large aircraft, the United States leads. The two rivals here are Northrop Grumman and Boeing. However, a couple of programmes are underway in Europe, although their aim, for the time being, is to yield technology demonstrators, and will thereby be used to explore paths to be followed (or avoided), not only in the development of full-blown attack aircraft, but also in their eventual operational use.

Unlike the Neuron, the Taranis is a pure British venture launched by the British Ministry of Defence in the mid-2000s with the prime objective of maintaining a national development capability, with BAE Systems acting a prime contractor and Rolls-Royce, GE Aviation, QuinetiQ as partners. The first flight of the Taranis, initially slated for 2011, has been postponed several times and is now expected to take place in 2013.

Like the Taranis, the Neuron is powered by a Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour turbojet engine, but is an international programme because it involves Dassault Aviation as prime contractor, Saab, Alenia, Eads, Casa, Eab, Thales and even Ruag of Switzerland being partners with each the responsibility of a specific part of the aeroplane. At time of writing, the Neuron was already performing taxiing and rolling tests and maiden flight was imminent. The Neuron is equipped with two weapon bays that are primarily intended to be home to laser-guided bombs (one in each bay.

All going well once it got its wheels unstuck from the Istres test base grounds, the Neuron will face a two-year long flight test programme, first in France to expand the flight envelope (but also to undergo DGA-required static tests), then in Sweden and finally in Italy. Tests will include the launch of 500kg GBUs rounds, but Dassault declined to specify where and at which particular point in the test programme.

Like other similar programmes, the Neuron was built to explore many avenues of development in terms of new materials, shapes (notably engine intake ducts and exhaust plume dispersion) and of course potential missions, but the programme will also have served the purpose of monitoring how seven countries could be put to working together on an advance design.


Unsurprisingly, the United States have a considerable lead in this field, but have had ups and downs and even outright programme halts. This partly explains why, in spite of maiden flights of first prototypes from arch-rivals Northrop Grumman (X-47A) and Boeing (X-45A) as early as 2001 and 2002, the aircraft that eventually emerged as the winner of the carrier-based remotely controlled attack aircraft joust, the Northrop Grumman X-47B, only took to the air in February 2011. We shall have to cut a long story short here, but suffice to know that the programme started as the J-Ucas, in which 'J' stands for Joint, meaning that it was to serve the purposes of both the Air Force and the Navy. The Air Force eventually pulled out, the programme collapsed and when the Navy revived its own project in 2007, Northrop Grumman's X-47B was selected.

The programme progressed apace since, the aircraft having had its maiden flight in February 2011 from Edwards air force base, followed by a second demonstrator on 22 November that same year, from the same base. Serious things are to start in 2013 with carrier launches and recoveries, reason why both aircraft were submitted to heavy electromagnetic interference tests at Pax River Navy Air Station during 2012. Catapult launches and arrested landings were also performed there. Interestingly, and unlike the Neuron, the X-47B will not be armed. As besets naval aircraft, the wing is foldable to halve span from 18.92 to 9.41 metres.

Since the X-47B is also expected to demonstrate air-refuelling capability in 2014, a specific software developed by Northrop Grumman has been successfully tested using a variable stability Learjet as surrogate aircraft and a KC-135. These tests were completed in January 2012.


A word about the MQ-5 Hunter is worthy of a few lines in this context since it is regarded as the first US Army armed drone. To many an American, this is regarded as a TRW product before this company's drone business was taken over by Northrop Grumman.

In fact, that too originally has an Israeli origin as it was developed by Israel Aerospace Industries as the Impact. While the production Hunter had its maiden flight in 1994, it had a rather convoluted early life as 56 were produced and delivered by 1995, but after several incidents they were all retired in January 1996. However, come Kosovo and they were pulled out of the mothballs. In 2003, Northrop Grumman bought the programme, increased the centre wing span by 1.5 metres and fitted a repackaged version of its small Bat anti-armour weapon now simplified and known as the Viper Strike. The Army bought 18 of these, redesignated MQ-5B.


At time of going to press, the US Navy announced that it planned to issue a request for proposals before the end of 2012 regarding its Udass programme, which is intended to lead to the deployment of an operational carrier-based drone by 2020. About half a dozen units, according to the Navy's statement, "would be ready to train with a carrier air wing", which ironically adds that "the unit would not necessarily deploy with the ship". The Navy also stated that most of the technologies developed by Northrop Grumman for the F-47B that became the property of the service will be made available to the other contenders, who will undoubtedly be Lockheed Martin (Sea Ghost), General Atomics (probably an Avenger-based aircraft), Boeing (likely to draw on its X-45C Phantom Ray design) and of course Northrop Grumman with a larger derivative of the X-45B.
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Title Annotation:DRONES
Author:Biass, Eric H.
Publication:Armada International
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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