Today, the United States Air Force is retiring the Predator—a military unmanned aerial vehicle that was used in attacks against al Qaeda during the war on terrorism. The Museum’s Predator, on display at our building in Washington, DC, was one of the first three UAVs to fly operational missions over Afghanistan after September 11th. Here, we take a look at the history and impact of the Predator on military aerial combat.
As an aerospace milestone, the Predator marked several significant transformations underway at the beginning of the 21st century, primarily the dramatic shift from so-called “manned” to Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). This shift had occurred slowly, as cruise missiles, target drones, and autopilots narrowed the roles for onboard human pilots. In most RPAS, including the Predator, humans are essential to their routine operation. While no one flies on the Predator, and it often cruises under control of an autopilot, most of its functions occur at the hands of a pilot, sensor operator, and mission intelligence coordinator in the ground-control station. In this way, the Predator is more “manned” than many other combat aircraft.
The Development of the Predator
The Predator had an unconventional and rapid development cycle unusual in modern American military aircraft, with origins going back to a garage project by Israeli emigrant Abraham Karem. By 1983, he had developed a small long-endurance tactical reconnaissance UAV prototype called the Albatross for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Five years later, further development had resulted in a more advanced design, the Amber, which was followed by the GNAT 750, a production-worthy design. Karem’s company and the GNAT 750 were soon acquired by General Atomics.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operated the GNAT 750 in operations over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993 and 1994. The program suffered from several technical issues, but it held enough promise that the Department of Defense expressed interest in a larger, more capable enhanced version of the GNAT 750 for medium-altitude tactical reconnaissance, soon designated RQ-1 Predator. By 1995, it too was operating over Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The National Air and Space Museum acquired Predator number 3034 in 2004 on the basis of its pivotal role in introducing armed RPAS into combat.
The Air Force soon saw the Predator as an interim replacement for a shortfall in tactical reconnaissance aircraft with the added benefit of a live satellite video link. Authority for Predator development came under the 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, nicknamed “Big Safari,” which had responsibility for rapid development of reconnaissance systems outside conventional “mil-spec” airworthiness standards, resulting in a capable, but fragile, aircraft. In the late 1990s, Big Safari expanded the Predator’s capability to include a laser designator to illuminate targets and guide weapons dropped from other aircraft. In 1999, this system had its first significant test during Operation Allied Force in Kosovo.
By 2000, concern over the rising threat of the al Qaeda terrorist organization and its leader, Osama bin Laden, encouraged Big Safari to accelerate the schedule for arming the Predator with the AGM-114 Hellfire laser-guided missile, originally developed for antitank helicopters. While Big Safari continued development in the United States, it also secretly operated several Predators from a base in Uzbekistan with the CIA during the summer and fall of 2000 to locate Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.
Continuing concerns over the legality of targeting an individual like bin Laden with the armed Predator delayed further deployments to Uzbekistan through the summer of 2001. On September 11, just as Predator number 3034 was undergoing final trials before deployment, the worst-case al Qaeda attacks occurred in New York and Washington, D.C.
Predator number 3034 flew 164 operational missions over Afghanistan between September 2001 and January 2003. Between August and November 2002, during the middle of its operations from Uzbekistan, number 3034 undertook a detached deployment to another operational site where it flew 32 missions. The National Air and Space Museum acquired Predator number 3034 in 2004 on the basis of its pivotal role in introducing armed RPAS into combat.
The Predator’s Impact
Given the small number of strikes made by Predators compared to manned aircraft, the impact was enormous. Its success in locating top enemy leaders made it a favorite tool of national security advisors and military commanders alike. In April 2001, the U.S. military had only 90 non–target drone UAVs in service, 75 of which were small battlefield observation types: the RQ-2 Pioneer and the RQ-7 Shadow. The other 15 were Predators. Four years later, the number had tripled. Ten years after that, the U.S. military had nearly 11,000 UAVs on inventory. The Predator alone does not account for this increase, but it unquestionably established the potential of the UAV to shape the battlefield and geopolitics in ways that no aircraft, manned or unmanned, had done before.
Previously, military strikes consisted of fast jet pilots arriving over a chaotic scene with little time to understand the situation, releasing heavy ordnance, and then quickly departing. Accuracy in such engagements could be problematic, particularly with terrorists or insurgents who blended with the local populace. Instead, with the ability to remain airborne for up to 40 hours (though operational missions rarely go much beyond 20), Predator pilots and sensor operators could understand the ground situation far more clearly than in any previous aerial platform. The Hellfire missile, while powerful, also has a narrow blast effect, which made possible precision strikes that were impossible from manned aircraft. At a typical operating altitude of 15,000 feet above the terrain, the Predator was silent and invisible to those on the ground (though not stealthy to radar).
This new mode of warfare came with new problems. Because the Predator bypassed the normal procurement process and did not have to meet conventional military standards for ruggedness and reliability, it entered operations in something akin to a prototype phase of development. One concern was the “soda straw” effect of viewing the world through the tight focus of the camera lens and thus missing important nearby activity. This pushed investments in multiple camera array sensor systems that could monitor larger areas and use computer algorithms to highlight likely areas of concern, such as a vehicle driving in a certain manner or in the appearance of weapon system.
U.S. Air Force Predator production ended in 2011 with 268 airframes completed. Additional unarmed airframes were made available to U.S. allies, including the United Kingdom and Italy. The Army began development of a refined derivative, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, which began operations in 2012. Even by the time of Operation Allied Force in 1999, the Air Force was aware that it needed a more capable and refined version of the Predator, so General Atomics began work on the “Predator B,” which entered operations in 2007 as the MQ-9 Reaper and slowly began replacing the Predator.
The Reaper and Predator are well-matched to the nature of the Global War on Terror. For the most part, they have operated against terrorists and insurgents who lack aircraft and air defenses. However, as operations in Iraq, Syria, and Kosovo have shown, they are extremely vulnerable when opposed by a capable enemy, as they are slow and cannot maneuver aggressively. In 2002, the Air Force even adapted a Predator to carry Stinger missiles and attempted an air-to-air engagement with an Iraqi MiG-25—a dogfight that resulted in the loss of the Predator.
The inability of Predator and Reaper to operate in contested airspace with effective enemy air defenses highlights the advances required for RPAS to maintain their operational significance. Jamming poses a significant threat to the Predator’s data links and GPS navigation, so future systems require significant advances in artificial intelligence and inertial navigation as well as faster and stealthier airframes. Another challenge is cultural—who is a pilot? Initially, most RPAS pilots for the U.S. Air Force were experienced combat pilots, but demand soon exceeded supply and the military services began training non-pilot operators. This has created organizational frictions in the military over who has the privileges of pilot status in a world where unmanned and autonomous operations are increasingly important. Regardless, the Predator and subsequent RPAS have dramatically changed the strategy and tactics of limited war in the 21st century.