Predator — A Proven Machine

The different versions of Predator have been extensively used since 1995 having been employed in combat operations over various countries including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Somalia

Issue: 06-2016By Lt General Naresh Chand (Retd) & Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By USAF, GA-ASI

Predator is an Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) which was developed and built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) for the primary use of the US Air Force (USAF) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The Predator series of UAVs were initially designed for carrying out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions over land or sea. It could carry out ISR over enemy territory without endangering the crew. It was equipped with sensors such as MTS-B electrooptical/infrared (EO/IR), Lynx multi-mode radar, multi-mode maritime radar, automated identification system (AIS), SIGINT/ESM system and Communications relay. The Predator and its successor versions have been in use extensively since the 1990s. The different versions of the platform developed are as under:

  • RQ-1 Series. RQ-1A was the Pre-production designation for the system which included four aircraft, Ground Control Station (GCS) and Predator Primary Satellite Link (PPSL). RQ-K was the pre-production designation for individual airframe, RQ-1B was the production designation for the Predator UAV system and RQ-1L was the production designation for individual airframe.
  • MQ-1Series. The designation M implies that the Predator is capable of dropping bombs and firing missiles. The MQ-1A Predator was an earlier version which was capable of carrying the AGM-114 Hellfire or AIM-92 Stinger missiles.
  • MQ-1B Predator. This is the current version of MQ series with some improvements. The current version MQ-1B Block 10/15 which includes further improvements in avionics, data-links, countermeasures, targeting system, wing deicing equipment, etc. Some earlier versions of MQ-1A UAV have been partially retrofitted with some Block 10/15 features.

Predator B UAV

The Predator B UAV, also called remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), has been designated as MQ-9 Reaper/Predator B persistent multi-mission ISR and strike aircraft. It is designed to perform multi-mission ISR and ‘Hunter-Killer’ missions over land or sea.

Designated as the MQ-9 Reaper by USAF and Royal Air Force, it was developed with GA-ASI funding and has better capabilities than the earlier versions of Predator. It was first flown in 2001. It is powered by a turboprop engine and is designed to carry out multiple missions.

The Predator B is a highly sophisticated RPA which has been built on the extensive experience gained with the GA-ASI’s battle-proven Predator RPA and incorporates major improvements in overall performance and reliability. It features unmatched operational flexibility, has an endurance of over 27 hours, true airspeed of 240 knots, can operate up to 50,000 feet and has a 3,850 pound (1,746 kg) payload capacity that includes 3,000 pounds (1,361 kg) of external stores. It is twice as fast as Predator while carrying 500 per cent more payload and its power plant delivers nine times the horsepower. This results in the MQ-9 Reaper/Predator B providing long endurance, persistent surveillance/strike capability for the war-fighter. It has high reliability as it is equipped with a fault-tolerant flight control system and triple redundant avionics system architecture. It is also engineered to meet and exceed manned aircraft reliability standards. The Predator B is modular in construction and can be configured with a variety of payloads depending upon the mission requirements. Its payload includes EO/IR, Lynx multi-mode radar, multi-mode maritime surveillance radar, ESM, laser designators and various weapons packages to include Hellfire air-to-surface missile for precision attacks, GBU-12 laser-guided bombs, GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and GBU-49 laser-JDAM.


The Predator B is powered by proven Honeywell TPE331-10 turboprop engine, integrated with Digital Electronic Engine Control which significantly improves engine performance and fuel efficiency, especially at low altitudes. A new variant, Predator B extended range (ER) has been designed to carry out retrofit in the field such as wingborne fuel pods that extends the aircraft’s endurance from 27 hours to 34 hours while further increasing its operational flexibility. This year it is planned to enlarge its wingspan from 66 feet to 79 feet to hold the fuel that was previously stored in the fuel pods. This configuration will deliver 42 hours of endurance. The Predator B is equipped with a new reinforced landing gear.

This aircraft has been acquired by the USAF, US Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the Royal Air Force, the Italian Air Force, the French Air Force and soon others.

Operational Record

The different versions of Predator have been extensively used since 1995 having been employed in combat operations over countries such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Somalia. Post-2001, the RQ-1 Predator became the primary unmanned aircraft used for offensive operations by the USAF and the CIA in Afghanistan, etc. It has also been deployed elsewhere. Civilian applications have included border enforcement, scientific studies to monitor wind direction and large forest fires.

Certifiable Predator B RPA

GA-ASI is developing a variant of the Predator B RPA which will initially meet European airworthiness initial certification standards in 2017 and in cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the US, will subsequently meet domestic airworthiness certification standards. It leverages both the Predator B RPA and Advanced Cockpit Ground Control Station as points of departure systems and identifies and incorporates the changes needed to achieve a CPB system. The improvements will be carried out both in hardware and software to include improved Predator B structural fatigue and damage tolerance and more reliable flight control software, as well as enhancements allowing operations in adverse weather including icing conditions. Additionally, the aircraft will be designed to survive bird and lightning strikes. The CPB is highly modular in construction and is easily configured with a variety of payloads to meet mission requirements. The UAV is capable of carrying multiple mission payloads and includes a state-of-the-art Detect and Avoid system. It will have adequate space, weight and power provisions to enable the retrofitting of an airborne Due Regard Radar for operation in non-cooperative airspace. It is designed to fly at a maximum altitude of over 45,000 ft, maximum endurance of over 40 hours and maximum true airspeed of 200 knots. It can be remotely piloted or fly in autonomous mode. It also has automatic take-off and landing capability apart from other features and ISR capabilities.

The Indian Scenario

For over a decade-and-a-half, the Indian armed forces and intelligence agencies have been operating the Searcher Mk II and the Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) acquired from Israel. These platforms have been and can only be employed for reconnaissance and surveillance, their role effectively being limited to intelligence gathering. The Indian aerospace industry in the public sector has designed, developed and manufactured UAVs though of relatively lower capability, such as the Lakshya and the Nishant. These UAVs have been in service for a considerable period of time. Other indigenous platforms that have been under development for some time are the two variants of the Rustom. Three years ago, the Indian Air Force (IAF) inducted a few of the Harop unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) from Israel. This is a loitering platform designed for suppression of enemy air defence or SEAD missions and is armed with explosives. However, the Harop does not drop bombs of fire missiles; it destroys the target by crashing into it.

The Indian aerospace industry is currently engaged in developing the autonomous unmanned combat aerial vehicle designated as the autonomous unmanned research aircraft (AURA). The platform is planned to be inducted into the IAF and the Indian Navy. Details of the platform are classified and hence are not available in public domain.

Although unmanned platforms are relatively a recent innovation in the regime of military aviation, the leading air forces of the world are now inclined to accord these machines greater preference compared to manned aircraft. In fact, every year, the USAF trains more UAV operators than combat pilots. The erstwhile US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates had predicted that the F-35 Lightening II joint strike fighter would be the last manned fighter the USAF would buy. For the IAF, as also for other air forces, acquisition, operation and maintenance of large fleets of manned combat aircraft is tending to become increasingly unaffordable. The recent shift of focus of the IAF from manned combat aircraft to unmanned platforms, both to UAVs and UCAVs, was therefore inevitable and quite understandable. Also, in the context of the rapidly dwindling fleet of combat aircraft in the IAF, the need to induct advanced modern unmanned platforms both for reconnaissance and combat, has acquired a high degree of urgency. However, as the pace of development of unmanned platforms by the Indian aerospace industry has been extremely tardy, the IAF would have no option but to explore options for the acquisition of the required capability from foreign sources.