The Air Force Is Retiring the Predator–So Why Doesn’t the Army Take It?
Years of infighting led to two different but redundant drone programs
On Aug. 14, 2015, the U.S. Air Force disclosed plans to retire the MQ-1 Predator by the end of 2018, according to report by FlightGlobal. The Pentagon has not announced any plans to send the unmanned aircraft to other services or sell them to American allies.
The U.S. Army has no interest in taking over the pilotless planes, either.
“Currently, there is no interest from the Army to acquire any of the MQ-1 Predator fleet the Air Force plans to retire,” a spokesperson for the Army’s Program Executive Office for Aviation wrote in an email. This office manages all of the Army’s planes and helicopters, including drones.
If the Army wanted to get some of the Predators to help expand its own fleet, there would be a precedent. In November 2014, the Air Force announced that it would send some of its small MC-12W spy planes to its Army cousins rather than the boneyard.
But for the Predator, a swap is unlikely. Years of infighting has led the Army to develop its own specific drones, which have cost the American taxpayer more than $500 million. Today, the Army has dozens of visibly similar MQ-1C Gray Eagles, but the aircraft share very little in common with the Predator beyond its designation.
That is completely by design.
The roots of the inter-service conflict go back to the 1990s, when the Predator was originally an Army program. In 1994, the Army created the first experimental Predator unit. Two years later, the Air Force had completely taken over the project.
“Up to this point, the Air Force had no significant involvement in the … process other than sending one pilot to fly the air vehicle,” Thomas Ehrhard, a special assistant to the flying branch’s chief of staff, wrote in Air Force UAVs — The Secret History.
Determined to obtain a similar — but different — drone, the Army kicked of its own program nearly a decade later. In August 2005, the ground combat branch hired Predator manufacturer General Atomics to cook up the new aircraft.
General Atomics derived its design from the Predator, but the new Warrior — also referred to as the Sky Warrior — was a very different beast featuring a longer wing and a new engine. The new drones flew almost 40 miles per hour faster and could stay in the air six hours longer.
To reinforce the differences, the Army wanted to officially name the Warriors the MQ-12. The Pentagon disagreed. In an effort to save money, officials in Washington were determined to merge the Predator and Warrior programs together. To drive the point home, Pentagon decided to call the Warrior the YMQ-1C.
Just over two years after the Army started work on its own drone, the Pentagon ordered both branches to decide on a single model. The Warrior was then supposed to become a prototype for this future pilotless plane.
Neither service appears to have been particularly thrilled with the plan. In 2010, the Defense Department’s top watchdog chided both services for failing to get their act together.
“The Air Force and the Army could have a single acquisition program,” the Inspector General said in a report obtained by The Intercept through the Freedom of Information Act. “However, the Air Force was not committed to a single acquisition program as demonstrated by actions.”
The Air Force refused to work on a common drone, insisting that two different aircraft — both called MQ-1C — would be just fine. Of course, the Army in turn demanded that the Air Force settle on its choice, the Warrior.
The Inspector General’s report estimated the infighting resulted in $115 million being wasted on halfhearted contracts handed out to General Atomics. The investigators claimed that picking a single type could have saved the service an additional $400 million over the years.
Fast forward five years later and things don’t appear to have changed. The current MQ-1Cs — now known as Gray Eagles — are as different from the Predators as ever.
“There is very little parts commonality between the Air Force Predator A and the Army Gray Eagle,” the PEO Aviation public affairs officer explained. “The MQ-1C Gray Eagle is far more common with the Air Force MQ-9 Reaper for flight control computers and avionics.”
“Gray Eagle … is essentially a completely different aircraft,” General Atomics spokesperson Kimberly Kasitz wrote in an email. “There isn’t much, if any, commonality with Predator A.”
The Gray Eagle is designed to take off and land automatically. The Predator and Reaper both need a pilot on the ground to launch the mission and get the drones back safe.
The ground control setups are fundamentally different, too. While the Air Force uses C-band data links to communicate with the MQ-1s and MQ-9s during takeoff and landing, the Army uses Ku-band satellite connections with its MQ-1Cs all the time.
The Army hasn’t let differences get in the way of putting its own drones into service. MQ-1Cs, which can carry missiles and bombs just like the Air Force’s Predators, are set to be a fixture in all of the service’s Combat Aviation Brigades. The elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment also uses the Gray Eagle.
The ground combat branch kept the older Warriors — now referred to commonly as Warrior Alphas and almost never by their official nomenclature — in service as well. According to the Army, these drones are still flying over foreign battlefields hunting for terrorists and militants right now.
“There is commonality with the Army’s Sky Warrior Alpha [and the Predator] since they are essentially the same aircraft,” Kasitz added. “[But] parts are not that expensive, and by the time you remove, refurbish, and inventory the old parts, there’s probably not much advantage over depot level repair or new parts.”
So with the Air Force planning to ditch its Predators completely, the Army’s persistence in its own drone programs seems to be paying off. The result, of course, is two different, costly and redundant drone programs.