The MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Military Aerial Vehicle

Groundbreaking UAV Retired in 2018

Unmanned aerial drone.
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The MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), commonly referred to as a drone, was one of the most widely used pieces of military equipment during its time. Developed by General Atomics of San Diego, California, Predator systems cost about $5 million each until their retirement in March of 2018.

Predators originally were designed for reconnaissance, then later adapted for combat. Their replacements—MQ-9 Reapers—are better suited to combat because of their ability to carry more munitions, increased speed, and superior sensor technology.

Reconnaissance and Combat Roles

Although primarily used by the U.S. military, the CIA had been developing aerial drones for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering since the 1980s and had an active interest in the Predator. The CIA helped oversee some of the early test flights and training involving the Predator system, and the agency actively used the aircraft for some of its foreign operations—notably in the Balkans.

Referred to by the U.S. military as a "system," the Predator actually consisted of four air vehicles with sensors, satellite communications, and a ground control station to help operate the unmanned aerial vehicles. Initially designed for reconnaissance missions, the Predator later was armed with Hellfire missiles, allowing it to serve a combat role. After coming into service in 1995, Predator UAVs were used in several conflicts, including those in Bosnia, Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

An unsuccessful attack on a Taliban leader less than a month after the September 11 attacks was the first time a Predator was used for combat. A decade later, Predators surpassed 1 million combat hours in the air, and two years after that, the number already had doubled to 2 million.

Operational Use and Success

A Predator aircraft could travel as far as 400 nautical miles from its base camp and stay airborne over a designated area for more than 10 hours before returning. This made it ideal for reconnaissance missions and intelligence gathering. The longest recorded flight by a Predator aircraft was 40 hours.

UAVs also keep pilots out of harm’s way. However, the aircraft ran into problems in bad weather conditions. Several early versions of the Predator crashed due to icy conditions, but the problems were corrected with a de-icing system.

Controversy

Some drone strikes, carried out by U.S. military or CIA personnel, have resulted in the deaths of American citizens. A high-profile example was Abdulrahman Anwar al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old Yemeni-American whose father was suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda. He and his father both were killed in separate drone strikes ordered by President Barack Obama in 2011.

Such instances have raised questions about the justification for killing U.S. citizens without due process. In the case of al-Awlaki, the killing took place in Yemen, where the U.S. was not at war. Supporters of drone strikes have argued that they are an effective means of targeting terrorist leaders without putting pilots or other U.S. military personnel in direct harm.

MQ-9 Reapers

The U.S. Air Force transitioned solely to MQ-9 Reapers for combat missions in 2018. Development of Reapers began in 2001, and they have been in use since 2007. Unlike the Predator, Reapers were developed specifically for combat missions and ultimately rendered Predators obsolete.

The biggest difference between Reapers and Predators might be the payload. Predators carried no more than 200 pounds, while Reapers have a 4,000-pound payload, allowing it to carry far more bombs and missiles.

Technological improvements also allow Reapers to fly faster than Predators despite the increased payload. High-definition sensors also make it more responsive to those controlling it remotely, resulting in greater agility.