July 3, 1994
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
General Atomics MQ 9 Reaper, Northrop Grumman RQ 4 Global Hawk, IAI Heron
The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator is an American remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) built by General Atomics and used primarily by the United States Air Force (USAF) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Initially conceived in the early 1990s for aerial reconnaissance and forward observation roles, the Predator carries cameras and other sensors but has been modified and upgraded to carry and fire two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles or other munitions. The aircraft, in use since 1995, has seen combat in war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the NATO intervention in Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq War, Yemen, Libyan civil war, the intervention in Syria, and Somalia.
- Command and sensor systems
- Deployment methodology
- Armed versions
- Later development and future
- Operational history
- Squadrons and operational units
- In the Balkans
- Other users
The USAF describes the Predator as a "Tier II" MALE UAS (medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system). The UAS consists of four aircraft or "air vehicles" with sensors, a ground control station (GCS), and a primary satellite link communication suite. Powered by a Rotax engine and driven by a propeller, the air vehicle can fly up to 400 nmi (460 mi; 740 km) to a target, loiter overhead for 14 hours, then return to its base.
Following 2001, the RQ-1 Predator became the primary remotely piloted aircraft used for offensive operations by the USAF and the CIA in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas; it has also been deployed elsewhere. Because offensive uses of the Predator are classified by the US, U.S. military officials have reported an appreciation for the intelligence and reconnaissance-gathering abilities of RPAs but declined to publicly discuss their offensive use.
Civilian applications have included border enforcement and scientific studies, and to monitor wind direction and other characteristics of large forest fires (such as the one that was used by the California Air National Guard in the August 2013 Rim Fire).
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pentagon began experimenting with unmanned reconnaissance aircraft (drones) in the early 1980s. The CIA preferred small, lightweight, unobtrusive drones, in contrast to the United States Air Force (USAF). In the early 1990s, the CIA became interested in the "Amber", a drone developed by Leading Systems, Inc. The company's owner, Abraham Karem, was the former chief designer for the Israeli Air Force, and had immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1970s. Karem's company had since gone bankrupt and been bought up by a U.S. defense contractor, from whom the CIA secretly bought five drones (now called the "GNAT"). Karem agreed to produce a quiet engine for the vehicle, which had until then sounded like "a lawnmower in the sky". The new development became known as the "Predator".
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA) was awarded a contract to develop the Predator in January 1994, and the initial Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) phase lasted from January 1994 to June 1996. First flight took place on 3 July 1994 at the El Mirage airfield in the Mojave Desert. The aircraft itself was a derivative of the GA Gnat 750. During the ACTD phase, three systems were purchased from GA, comprising twelve aircraft and three ground control stations.
From April through May 1995, the Predator ACTD aircraft were flown as a part of the Roving Sands 1995 exercises in the U.S. The exercise operations were successful, and this led to the decision to deploy the system to the Balkans later in the summer of 1995.
During the ACTD, Predators were operated by a combined Army/Navy team managed by the Navy's Joint Program Office for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (JPO-UAV) and first deployed to Gjader, Albania, for operations in the Former Yugoslavia in spring 1995.
By the start of the United States Afghan campaign in 2001, the USAF had acquired 60 Predators, and said it had lost 20 of them in action. Few if any of the losses were from enemy action, the worst problem apparently being foul weather, particularly icy conditions. Some critics within the Pentagon saw the high loss rate as a sign of poor operational procedures. In response to the losses caused by cold weather conditions, a few of the later USAF Predators were fitted with de-icing systems, along with an uprated turbocharged engine and improved avionics. This improved "Block 1" version was referred to as the "RQ-1B", or the "MQ-1B" if it carried munitions; the corresponding air vehicle designation was "RQ-1L" or "MQ-1L".
The Predator system was initially designated the RQ-1 Predator. The "R" is the United States Department of Defense designation for reconnaissance and the "Q" refers to an unmanned aircraft system. The "1" describes it as being the first of a series of aircraft systems built for unmanned reconnaissance. Pre-production systems were designated as RQ-1A, while the RQ-1B (not to be confused with the RQ-1 Predator B, which became the MQ-9 Reaper) denotes the baseline production configuration. These are designations of the system as a unit. The actual aircraft themselves were designated RQ-1K for pre-production models, and RQ-1L for production models. In 2002, the USAF officially changed the designation to MQ-1 ("M" for multi-role) to reflect its growing use as an armed aircraft.
Command and sensor systems
During the campaign in the former Yugoslavia, a Predator's pilot would sit with several payload specialists in a van near the runway of the drone's operating base. Direct radio signals controlled the drone's takeoff and initial ascent. Then communications shifted to military satellite networks linked to the pilot's van. Pilots experienced a delay of several seconds between moving their joysticks and the drone's response. But by 2000, improvements in communications systems (perhaps by use of the USAF's JSTARS system) made it possible, at least in theory, to fly the drone remotely from great distances. It was no longer necessary to use close-up radio signals during the Predator's takeoff and ascent. The entire flight could be controlled by satellite from any command and control center with the right equipment. The CIA proposed to attempt over Afghanistan the first fully remote Predator flight operations, piloted from the agency's headquarters at Langley.
The Predator air vehicle and sensors are controlled from the ground station via a C-band line-of-sight data link or a Ku-band satellite data link for beyond-line-of-sight operations. During flight operations the crew in the ground control station is a pilot and two sensor operators. The aircraft is equipped with the AN/AAS-52 Multi-spectral Targeting System, a color nose camera (generally used by the pilot for flight control), a variable aperture day-TV camera, and a variable aperture thermographic camera (for low light/night). Previously, Predators were equipped with a synthetic aperture radar for looking through smoke, clouds or haze, but lack of use validated its removal to reduce weight and conserve fuel. The cameras produce full motion video and the synthetic aperture radar produced still frame radar images. There is sufficient bandwidth on the datalink for two video sources to be used at one time, but only one video source from the sensor ball can be used at any time due to design limitations. Either the daylight variable aperture or the infrared electro-optical sensor may be operated simultaneously with the synthetic aperture radar, if equipped.
All later Predators are equipped with a laser designator that allows the pilot to identify targets for other aircraft and even provide the laser guidance for manned aircraft. This laser is also the designator for the AGM-114 Hellfire that are carried on the MQ-1.
Each Predator air vehicle can be disassembled into six main components and loaded into a container nicknamed "the coffin." This enables all system components and support equipment to be rapidly deployed worldwide. The largest component is the ground control station and it is designed to roll into a C-130 Hercules. The Predator primary satellite link consists of a 6.1-meter (20-ft) satellite dish and associated support equipment. The satellite link provides communications between the ground station and the aircraft when it is beyond line-of-sight and is a link to networks that disseminate secondary intelligence. The RQ-1A system needs 1,500 by 40 meters (5,000 by 125 ft) of hard surface runway with clear line-of-sight to each end from the ground control station to the air vehicles. Initially, all components needed to be located on the same airfield.
Currently, the U.S. Air Force uses a concept called "Remote-Split Operations" where the satellite datalink is located in a different location and is connected to the GCS through fiber optic cabling. This allows Predators to be launched and recovered by a small "Launch and Recovery Element" and then handed off to a "Mission Control Element" for the rest of the flight. This allows a smaller number of troops to be deployed to a forward location, and consolidates control of the different flights in one location.
The improvements in the MQ-1B production version include an ARC-210 radio, an APX-100 IFF/SIF with mode 4, a glycol-weeping "wet wings" ice mitigation system, upgraded turbo-charged engine, fuel injection, longer wings, dual alternators as well as other improvements.
On 18 May 2006, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a certificate of authorization which will allow the M/RQ-1 and M/RQ-9 aircraft to be used within U.S. civilian airspace to search for survivors of disasters. Requests had been made in 2005 for the aircraft to be used in search and rescue operations following Hurricane Katrina, but because there was no FAA authorization in place at the time, the assets were not used. The Predator's infrared camera with digitally enhanced zoom has the capability of identifying the infrared signature of a human body from an altitude of 3 km (10,000 ft), making the aircraft an ideal search and rescue tool.
The longest declassified Predator flight to date lasted for 40 hours, 5 minutes. The total flight time has reached 1 million hours as of April 2010.
The USAF BIG SAFARI program office managed the Predator program and was given direction on 21 June 2000 to explore options to arm the aircraft. This led to it being fitted with reinforced wings and stores pylons to carry munitions, as well as a laser designator. The RQ-1 conducted its first firing of a Hellfire anti-tank missile on 16 February 2001; over a bombing range near Indian Springs Air Force Station north of Las Vegas, Nevada, an inert AGM-114C successfully hit a tank target. This led to a series of tests on 21 February 2001 in which the Predator fired three Hellfire missiles, scoring hits on a stationary tank with all three missiles. Following the February tests, the decision was made to move immediately to increment two of the testing phase, which involved more complex tests to hunt for simulated moving targets from greater altitudes with the more advanced AGM-114K version. The scheme was put into service, with the armed Predators given the new designation of MQ-1A. The Predator gives little warning of attack; it is relatively quiet and the Hellfire is supersonic, so it strikes before it is heard by the target.
In the winter of 2000–2001, after seeing the results of Predator reconnaissance in Afghanistan (see below), Cofer Black, head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center (CTC), became a "vocal advocate" of arming the Predator with missiles to target Osama bin Laden in the country. He also believed that CIA pressure and practical interest was causing the USAF's armed Predator program to be significantly accelerated. Black, and "Richard", who was in charge of the CTC's Bin Laden Issue Station, continued to press during 2001 for a Predator armed with Hellfire missiles.
Further weapons tests occurred between 22 May and 7 June 2001, with mixed results. While missile accuracy was excellent, there were some problems with missile fuzing..." In the first week of June, in the Nevada Desert, a Hellfire missile was successfully launched on a replica of bin Laden's Afghanistan Tarnak residence. A missile launched from a Predator exploded inside one of the replica's rooms; it was concluded that any people in the room would have been killed. However, the armed Predator did not go into action before the September 11 attacks.
The USAF has also investigated using the Predator to drop battlefield ground sensors and to carry and deploy the "Finder" mini-UAV.
Later development and future
Based on the MQ-1 Predator, the General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle was developed for the U.S. Army.
The USAF ordered a total of 259 Predators, and due to retirements and crashes the number in Air Force operation was reduced to 154 as of May 2014. Budget proposals planned to retire the Predator fleet between FY 2015 and 2017 in favor of the larger MQ-9 Reaper, which has greater payload and range. The Predators would likely be stored at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base or be given to other organizations willing to take them. The Customs and Border Patrol has shown interest, but already operate higher-performance Reapers and are having difficulty with operating costs. The U.S. Coast Guard has also shown interest in land-based UAV surveillance. Foreign sales are also an option, but the MQ-1 may be subject to limitations of the Missile Technology Control Regime because it can be armed. Export markets are also limited by the Reaper as well. Given the Predator's phasing out and low size, weight, and power availability, the Air Force decided not to look into upgrades to make it more effective in contested environments and found its only use in defended airspace would be to be shot down while drawing fire away from other aircraft. Due to needed airborne surveillance after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) invaded Iraq, the Predator's retirement was pushed to 2018. MQ-1s will probably be placed in non-recoverable storage at the Boneyard and not sold to allies, although antenna, ground control stations, and other components may be salvaged for continued use on other airframes.
General Atomics completed manufacturing on the final RQ-1 ordered by Italy by October 2015, marking the end of Predator A production after two decades. The last Predator for the USAF was completed in 2011; later Predator aircraft were built on the Predator XP assembly line.
As of March 2009, the U.S. Air Force had 195 MQ-1 Predators and 28 MQ-9 Reapers in operation. Predators and Reapers fired missiles 244 times in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. A report in March 2009 indicated that U.S. Air Force had lost 70 Predators in air crashes during its operational history. Fifty-five were lost to equipment failure, operator error, or weather. Four have been shot down in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Iraq. Eleven more were lost to operational accidents on combat missions. In 2012, the Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk were described as "... the most accident-prone aircraft in the Air Force fleet."
On 3 March 2011, the U.S. Air Force took delivery of its last MQ-1 Predator in a ceremony at General Atomics' flight operations facility. Since its first flight in July 1994, the MQ-1 series has accumulated over 1,000,000 flight hours and maintained a fleet fully mission capable rate over 90 percent.
On 22 October 2013, the U.S. Air Force's fleets of MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft reached 2,000,000 flight hours. The RPA program began in the mid-1990s, taking 16 years for them to reach 1 million flight hours. The 2 million hour mark was reached just two and a half years after that.
Squadrons and operational units
During the initial ACTD phase, the United States Army led the evaluation program, but in April 1996, the Secretary of Defense selected the U.S. Air Force as the operating service for the RQ-1A Predator system. The 3d Special Operations Squadron at Cannon Air Force Base, 11th, 15th, 17th, and 18th Reconnaissance Squadrons, Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, and the Air National Guard's 163d Reconnaissance Wing at March Air Reserve Base, California, currently operate the MQ-1.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense recommended retiring Ellington Field's 147th Fighter Wing's F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets (a total of 15 aircraft), which was approved by the Base Realignment and Closure committee. They will be replaced with 12 MQ-1 Predator UAVs, and the new unit should be fully equipped and outfitted by 2009. The wing's combat support arm will remain intact. The 272d Engineering Installation Squadron, an Air National Guard unit currently located off-base, will move into Ellington Field in its place.
The 3d Special Operations Squadron is currently the largest Predator squadron in the United States Air Force.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection was reported in 2013 to be operating 10 Predators and to have requested 14 more.
On 21 June 2009, the United States Air Force announced that it was creating a new MQ-1 squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base that would become operational by February 2011. In September 2011, the U.S. Air National Guard announced that despite current plans for budget cuts, they will continue to operate the Air Force's combat UAVs, including MQ-1B.
On 28 August 2013, a Predator belonging to the 163d Reconnaissance Wing was flying at 18,000 to 20,000 feet over the Rim Fire in California providing infrared video of lurking fires, after receiving emergency approvals. Rules limit the Predator behavior; it must be accompanied by a manned aircraft, and its camera must only be active above the fire.
In September 2013, the Air Force Special Operations Command tested the ability to rapidly deploy Predator aircraft. Two MQ-1s were loaded into a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III in a cradle system that also carried a control terminal, maintenance tent, and the crew. The test was to prove the UAVs could be deployed and set up at an expeditionary base within four hours of landing. In a recent undisclosed deployment, airmen set up a portable hangar in a tent and a wooden taxiway to operate MQ-1s for a six-week period.
In the Balkans
The first overseas deployment took place in the Balkans, from July to November 1995, under the name Nomad Vigil. Operations were based in Gjader, Albania. Four disassembled Predators were flown into Gjadër airbase in a C-130 Hercules. The UAVs were assembled and flown first by civilian contract personnel. More than 70 U.S. military personnel of the military intelligence were deployed. Intelligence collection missions began in July 1995. One of the Predators was lost over Bosnia on 11 August 1995; a second was deliberately destroyed on 14 August after suffering an engine failure over Bosnia, which may have been caused by hostile ground fire. Its original 60-day stay was extended to 120 days. The following spring, in March 1996, the system was redeployed to the Balkan area and operated out of Taszar, Hungary.
Several others were destroyed in the course of Operation Noble Anvil, the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia:
In 2000, a joint CIA-DoD effort was agreed to locate Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Dubbed "Afghan Eyes", it involved a projected 60-day trial run of Predators over the country. The first experimental flight was held on 7 September 2000. White House security chief Richard A. Clarke was impressed by the resulting video footage; he hoped that the drones might eventually be used to target Bin Laden with cruise missiles or armed aircraft. Clarke's enthusiasm was matched by that of Cofer Black, head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center (CTC), and Charles Allen, in charge of the CIA's intelligence-collection operations. The three men backed an immediate trial run of reconnaissance flights. Ten out of the ensuing 15 Predator missions over Afghanistan were rated successful. On at least two flights, a Predator spotted a tall man in white robes at bin Laden's Tarnak Farm compound outside Kandahar; the figure was subsequently deemed to be "probably bin Laden". By October 2000, deteriorating weather conditions made it difficult for the Predator to fly from its base in Uzbekistan, and the flights were suspended.
On 16 February 2001 at Nellis Air Force Base, a Predator successfully fired three Hellfire AGM-114C missiles into a target. The newly armed Predators were given the designation of MQ-1A. In the first week of June 2001, a Hellfire missile was successfully launched on a replica of bin Laden's Afghanistan Tarnak residence built at a Nevada testing site. A missile launched from a Predator exploded inside one of the replica's rooms; it was concluded that any people in the room would have been killed. On 4 September 2001 (after the Bush cabinet approved a Qaeda/Taliban plan), CIA chief Tenet ordered the agency to resume reconnaissance flights. The Predators were now weapons-capable, but didn't carry missiles because the host country (presumably Uzbekistan) hadn't granted permission.
Subsequent to 9/11, approval was quickly granted to ship the missiles, and the Predator aircraft and missiles reached their overseas location on 16 September 2001. The first mission was flown over Kabul and Kandahar on 18 September without carrying weapons. Subsequent host nation approval was granted on 7 October and the first armed mission was flown on the same day.
On 5 May 2013, an MQ-1 Predator surpassed 20,000 flight hours over Afghanistan by a single Predator. Predator P107 achieved the milestone while flying a 21-hour combat mission; P107 was first delivered in October 2004.
Since at least 2004, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has allegedly been operating the drones out of Shamsi airfield in Pakistan to attack militants in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Since May 2003, the MQ-1 Predator fitted with Hellfire missiles has been successfully used to kill a number of prominent al Qaeda operatives. The use of the Predator has also resulted in a number of civilian deaths, particularly on 13 January 2006 when 18 civilians were killed. According to Pakistani authorities, the U.S. strike was based on faulty intelligence and Pakistan government did not allow U.S Agency to strike within Pakistan territory.
An Iraqi MiG-25 shot down a Predator performing reconnaissance over the no fly zone in Iraq on 23 December 2002. This was the first time in history a conventional aircraft and a drone had engaged each other in combat. Predators had been armed with AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missiles, and were being used to "bait" Iraqi fighters, then run. In this incident, the Predator did not run, but instead fired one of its Stingers. The Stinger's heat-seeker became "distracted" by the MiG's missile and missed the MiG. The Predator was hit by the MiG's missile and destroyed. Another two Predators had been shot down earlier by Iraqi SAMs, one of them on 11 September 2001.
During the initial phases of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, a number of older Predators were stripped down and used as decoys to entice Iraqi air defenses to expose themselves by firing. From July 2005 to June 2006, the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron participated in more than 242 separate raids, engaged 132 troops in contact-force protection actions, fired 59 Hellfire missiles; surveyed 18,490 targets, escorted four convoys, and flew 2,073 sorties for more than 33,833 flying hours.
Iraqi insurgents intercepted video feeds, which were not encrypted, using a $26 piece of Russian software named SkyGrabber. The encryption for the ROVER feeds were removed for performance reasons. Work to secure the data feeds is to be completed by 2014.
On 27 June 2014, the Pentagon confirmed that a number of armed Predators had been sent to Iraq along with U.S. Special Forces following advances by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The Predators were flying 30-40 missions per day in and around Baghdad with government permission, and intelligence gathered is being shared with Iraqi forces. On 8 August 2014, an MQ-1 Predator fired a missile at a militant mortar position. From the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve to January 2016, five UASF Predators were lost; four crashed from technical failures in Iraq, one in June 2015, two in October 2015, and one in January 2016.
On 3 November 2002, a Hellfire missile was fired at a car in Yemen, killing Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, an al-Qaeda leader thought to be responsible for the USS Cole bombing. It was the first direct U.S. strike in the War on Terrorism outside Afghanistan.
In 2004, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC-TV) international affairs program Foreign Correspondent investigated this targeted killing and the involvement of then U.S. Ambassador as part of a special report titled "The Yemen Option". The report also examined the evolving tactics and countermeasures in dealing with Al Qaeda inspired attacks.
On 30 September 2011, a Hellfire fired from an American UAV killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-citizen cleric and Al Qaeda leader, in Yemen. Also killed was Samir Khan, an American born in Saudi Arabia, who was editor of al-Qaeda's English-language webzine, Inspire.
U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predators have been involved in reconnaissance and strike sorties in Operation Unified Protector. An MQ-1B fired its first Hellfire missile in the conflict on 23 April 2011, striking a BM-21 Grad. There are also some suggestions that a Predator was involved in the final attack against Gaddafi.
Predators returned to Libya in 2012, after the attack that killed the US Ambassador in Benghazi. MQ-9 Reapers were also deployed.
On 25 June 2011, US Predator drones attacked an Al-Shabaab (militant group) training camp south of Kismayo. Ibrahim al-Afghani, a senior al Shabaab leader was rumored to be killed in the strike.
Four Al-Shabaab fighters, including a Kenyan, were killed in a drone strike late February 2012.
On 1 November 2012, two Iranian Sukhoi Su-25 attack aircraft engaged an unarmed Predator conducting routine surveillance over the Persian Gulf just before 05:00 EST. The Su-25s made two passes at the drone firing their 30 mm cannon; the Predator was not hit and returned to base. The incident was not revealed publicly until 8 November. The U.S. stated that the Predator was over international waters, 16 miles away from Iran and never entered its airspace. Iran states that the drone entered Iran's airspace and that its aircraft fired warning shots to drive it away.
On 12 March 2013, an Iranian F-4 Phantom pursued an MQ-1 flying over the Persian Gulf. The unarmed reconnoitering Predator was approached by the F-4, coming within 16 miles of the UAV. Two U.S. fighters were escorting the Predator and verbally warned the jet, which made the Iranian F-4 break off. All American aircraft remained over international waters. An earlier statement by the Pentagon that the escorting planes fired a flare to warn the Iranian jet was later amended. The Air Force later revealed that the American jet that forced the Iranian F-4 to break off was an F-22 Raptor.
Armed MQ-1 are used in Operation Inherent Resolve against IS over Syria and Iraq. On 17 March 2015, a US MQ-1 was shot down by a Syrian government S-125 SAM battery when it overflew the Port of Latakia, a region not involved in the international military operation.
A 2012 New York Times article claimed that U.S. forces used a Predator drone to try and kill Indonesian terrorist Umar Patek in The Philippines in 2006. The Philippines' military denied this action took place, however. It was reported that a drone was responsible for killing al-Qaeda operative Zulkifli bin Hir on Jolo island on 2 February 2012. The strike reportedly killed 15 Abu Sayyaf operatives. The Philippines stated the strike was done by manned OV-10 aircraft with assistance from the U.S.
It has also been used by the Italian Air Force. With contract signed on 3 July 2002 and delivery began by 18 December 2004, for 6 Predator A, then updated to A+ version. It was used in these missions:
Two civil-registered unarmed MQ-1s have been operated by the Office of the National Security Advisor in the Philippines since 2006.
The Predator has been licensed for sale to Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and UAE.
The U.S. Army selected the MQ-1C Warrior as the winner of the Extended-Range Multi-Purpose UAV competition August 2005. The aircraft became operational in 2009 as the MQ-1C Gray Eagle.
Data from USAF MQ-1B fact sheet