26 February 2011

Genesis of the Predator UAV

Leading Systems' Amber UAV, grandfather of the Predator
In the mid-1970s, Abraham Karem, a designer of high-tech weaponry for the Israeli Defense Forces, emigrated to the United States but despite his credentials working with the Israeli military, found himself unable to get employment with any of the major American defense contractors. Karem had some innovative ideas for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), so ended up starting his own company, Leading Systems, in the garage of his home in Irvine, California, to pursue his UAV concepts. In 1982, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, was providing seed money to small companies that offered innovative solutions to problems outlined by the US military. One such problem was a need for an advanced UAV that could provide reconnaissance imagery while having a long endurance but be both inexpensive and reliable. The classified DARPA program TEAL RAIN was established to study the technology for long-endurance UAVs. The problem at the time was that previous long endurance UAVs exemplified by the Boeing Condor as well as the Compass Cope program were large and prohibitively expensive. Two years after he founded Leading Systems, Abraham Karem secured seed money from DARPA to develop his concepts and in 1984, he received a contract to develop a classified reconnaissance UAV code-named Amber. While most competing companies adapted existing piston engines from snowmobiles and motorcycles for their designs, Karem used the DARPA seed money to hire engineers willing to design and build engines custom tailored for the Amber program. 

The first Amber UAV flew in 1986 (just two years after Karem got the DARPA contract!). Karem designed Amber to fold up and be fired from a standard torpedo tube- the US Navy was one of the backers of the Amber project- as a result, it had a slender fuselage with a parasol wing and an inverted-V tail with a pusher prop. Two types of Amber UAVs were planned- the "A" version had a pointed nose section carrying a warhead and was to be a low-cost cruise missile- approaching its target, the wing was to be jettisoned, hence the need for a parasol-type wing. The "B" version replaced the warhead section of the "A" version with a slightly bulged nose compartment that housed imaging sensors and datalinks to act as a reconnaissance UAV. The "B" version had a stalky retractable landing gear as well. The use of an inverted-V tail was to protect the pusher prop during landing and takeoff. By 1988, Amber had demonstrated a flight endurance of nearly 40 hours when competing companies were barely getting 12 hours out of their designs. Not only was Karem's design outflying its competitors, it was also proving to be immensely reliable as well. Thirteen Amber UAVs were built by 1990. 

In the same year that Amber was breaking records in 1988, Congress began to get impatient with the Pentagon's slow pace of UAV development. By 1990 the Pentagon was forced by Congressional mandate to consolidate the UAV research efforts of the different armed services into a single Joint Program Office (JPO). The JPO, however, wasn't budgeted any funds for research, which meant that only big defense contractors could stay in the running where internal corporate funding was plentiful. At the same time, and in its infinite wisdom, Congress banned DARPA from supporting UAV projects outside of the jurisdiction of the Pentagon JPO and as a result, Leading Systems' funding dried up overnight and Amber had to be canceled despite its achievements. 

Leading Systems/General Atomics Gnat 750
To try and stay afloat, Abraham Karem and his small team at Leading Systems developed a UAV based on Amber that was less-complex and used a standard Rotax piston engine for propulsion. This UAV was named the Gnat 750. Since the Gnat was planned for the export market, it was larger and didn't have as many of the advanced features of Amber, but it retained the overall layout with the difference that the wing was now directly attached to the fuselage instead of high-mounted on a pylon. The inverted-V tail was still there as well as a pusher prop and the stalky retractable undercarriage. The Gnat 750 first flew in 1989 and despite being "less high-tech" than Amber, boasted a significant number of design improvements. However, the loss of DARPA funding was too much for Leading Systems and Karem was looking at shutting down the company. However, San Diego-based defense contractor General Atomics was looking in 1990 to diversify its holdings outside of its core business of nuclear reactor technologies. One of its corporate directors was a former US Navy rear admiral, Thomas Cassidy, who joined General Atomics in 1987. He thought Karem's operation would be a good fit for what General Atomics was looking for and in 1990, General Atomics acquired Leading Systems and set up Abraham Karem and his team in a subsidiary General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to continue the development of the Gnat 750 UAV. 

In 1993, the Pentagon issued a requirement to rapidly field a surveillance UAV to support UN peacekeeping forces in the former Yugoslavia. The Gnat 750 was selected, but because the need was immediate and existing military acquisition procedures were too slow, the program was transferred to the CIA under the code name LOFTY VIEW. Since the CIA would be operating the Gnat 750 in secret, it fell outside of the purview of the Congressional mandate the created the UAV JPO that inadvertently killed off the Amber program. By 1994 the first Gnat 750s were deployed to a CIA operating base in Albania for operations throughout the Balkans. The UAVs provided overhead surveillance for UN convoys as well as spotting artillery emplacements and the operating locations of the various belligerents in the wars that wracked the region through the latter half of the 1990s. The bad weather of the Balkans and the limited range of the Gnat's datalink proved to be the main issues that affected operations. 

While the CIA was getting the Gnat 750 operational over the Balkans, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems had secured funding under an advanced concept technology program. At the time, UAV development had been stratified into "Tier" levels based on endurance and performance. I had reviewed these Tiers a year ago in a previous blog posting that covered the development of top-secret stealthy Quartz UAV
In the 1990s, there were three "tiers" of UAV development based on operational capability. "Tier I" was for a low-altitude system that became the Gnat-750 UAV. "Tier II" was for a more capable medium altitude system based on the Tier I craft and that became the current Predator UAV family. The specification for "Tier III" would have been filled by the Quartz project, but with its cancellation, Tier III was split into two- Tier II+ was for the Quartz's performance without stealth and this became the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV. Tier III- ("Tier III Minus") was stealthy but without the performance and payload of Tier II+. This design became the RQ-3 DarkStar. DarkStar, a joint effort between Boeing and Lockheed, had little in common with Quartz and itself would be canceled in 1999 in favor of further development of the Global Hawk.
General Atomics RQ-1/MQ-1 Predator
The Pentagon was issuing contracts for UAVs at each Tier. General Atomics's funding was for development of a Tier II UAV. The new design took the Gnat 750 and stretched the fuselage and lengthened the wings. The inverted-V tail, stalky retractable undercarriage, and pusher prop were retained (though with a more powerful Rotax piston engine). Since one of the weaknesses of the Gnat 750 was the limited range of its datalink, the new UAV had an enlarged nose section that had the imaging payload on the underside of the nose similar to what the Gnat 750's layout, but incorporated a satellite communications dish in a bulged radome as the new datalink. Use of a satcom datalink now meant that the UAV operators and pilots didn't even have to be in the same region as the UAV's area of operations. It was now possible for the crews to fly the UAVs from stateside bases using the satcom datalinks to fly the Tier II UAV anywhere in the world it was needed. 

Named Predator, the new Tier II UAV made its first flight in June 1994. Less than a year later during the Roving Sands 95 exercise at Fort Bliss, Texas, the Predators were used for the first time in an operational demonstration. They were so successful at Roving Sands that year that the USAF established its first UAV squadron, the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron at Indian Springs Auxillary Airfield in Nevada (later renamed Creech AFB in 2005) shortly after the exercise in Texas and just one month after Roving Sands, the first Predators were deployed to the Balkans under Operation Nomad Vigil. From July to November that year the 11th RS operated its Predators out of Gjader in Albania in support of Operation Deliberate Force, the NATO air campaign against Bosnian Serb forces. While more capable than the Gnat 750s operated by the CIA, the need for overhead surveillance was so great in the Balkans that both the Predator and the Gnat 750s operated simultaneously in theater. 

By 2001, the USAF had taken delivery of 68 Predator UAVs. Due to the steep learning curve in operating such a radically different type of aircraft, 19 were lost, but only 4 were confirmed to have been shot down over the Balkans. But it was only the beginning of how the Predator began to change the way air campaigns were fought. And that is subject matter for a future posting on this blog!
Sources: Birds of Prey: Predators, Reapers and America's Newest UAVs in Combat by Bill Yenne. Specialty Press, 2010, p37-40.
 Popular Science, September 1994. "Drones: Invented and Forgotten" by Bill Sweetman, p34.
Designation-Systems.net by Andreas Parsch. "Leading Systems Amber" and "General Atomics Gnat".
Photos: Federation of American Scientists, United States Air Force.


  1. The 11th RS didn't have anything to do with operating the Predator until 1997. Up to the handoff (during operations out of Tazar, Hungary) the Predators had been operated by the Army: C co of the Military Intelligence Battalion (Low Intensity) in conjunction with the JPO. The unit had a few Navy, Marine, and USAF personnel attached. During all of Nomad Vigil it was a US Army led, joint operation.

  2. The 11th wasn't reactivated until July 29, 1995, at Nellis Air Force Base. The Predator was initially deployed to the Balkans by a joint detachment.

  3. The Predators in Albania were not operated by the 11th RS which wasn't activated yet. In fact there was only one Air Force TS involved in operations. At that time it was operated by a joint force led by the US Army Military Intelligence Battalion (Low Intensity), Charlie Co. The USAF took over after the war ended and operations moved to Tzar, Hungary.