The US Army is set to boost the capabilities of its predator drones, Gray Eagle, by adding high-tech equipment such as synthetic aperture radar (SAR), moving target indicator (MTI), electronic intelligence (ELINT), communications intelligence (COMINT), air-Launched effects (ALE) and radar warning receiver.
The MQ-1C Gray Eagle is a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system. The 28-ft long drone is an upgraded version of the MQ-1 Predator developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) for the US Army. It has an endurance of 25 hours, speeds up to167 KTAS, can operate up to 29,000 feet, and carries 1,075 lb (488 kg) of internal and external payload.
A Request For Information (RFI) issued on a government contracting website underlined the deficiencies of the non-stealthy drones and the danger of being hit by adversary “anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) strategies, posing a significant challenge to the current Aerial Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (AISR) fleet.”
The Gray Eagle mainly performs the functions of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. It also carries small missiles and bombs enabling tactical strike capabilities.
Eye On Russia And China
With increasing hostility between the US and its adversaries, including China and Russia, the US Army is now looking to add new capabilities especially for Joint All Domain Operations (JADO). The RFI said that it wants to “identify potential existing sources capable of providing aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (AISR) payloads for the MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft system (UAS) platform that meet the JADO environment.”
According to David Axe of Forbes, the idea is to fit the Gray Eagle with more powerful sensors and munitions, allowing the drone to “initiate disintegration” of enemy radars, surface-to-air missile batteries, and mobile flak guns.
He added that the Gray Eagle is slow and currently “lacks stealth qualities and, while capable of carrying small missiles and bombs for striking ground targets, can’t do much to defend itself against enemy air-defenses.”
In 2019, Iran managed to shoot down an American spy drone, which had entered the Iranian airspace. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down US Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk that it claimed gave “numerous” warnings before shooting down the aircraft. US President Donald Trump initially issued a series of cataclysmic threats, insisting that the RQ-4 Global Hawk was flying over international waters when it was taken down by an Iranian missile.
However, the GPS coordinates released by Iran put the drone eight miles off the country’s coast, inside the 12 nautical miles from the shore, which is Iran’s territorial waters. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi earlier told the Swiss envoy that “there is irrefutable evidence about the presence of this drone in Iran’s airspace and even some parts of its wreckage have been retrieved from Iranian territorial waters.
The document explained the idea behind the acquisition that is expected to be made to upgrade the Gray Eagle. “The MQ-1C Gray Eagle flies racetrack patterns tangential to the integrated air defense system (IADS) threat, at 80 kilometers (50 miles) distance.”
Gray Eagle To Deploy Swarm Drones
Axe claimed that 80 kilometers will be too far for the Gray Eagle’s current radar and camera range. Hence, the army is looking to adopt air-launched effects (ALE), meaning the swarming of small drones to directly attack enemy systems or to transmit accurate information to Gray Eagle.
“ALEs deployed from the MQ-1C Gray Eagle (may serve) as the forward most element of the advanced team in areas of expected enemy contact in order to detect, identity, location and report (DILR) and (help) attack/disrupt/decoy threat assets to initiate dis-integration of the IADS,” RFI stated. After that, the Gray Eagle will acquire “Spot Scan imagery using the threat coordinates” and the scan will be used by Army artillery to then open fire on the adversary.
The level of details in the RFI by the Army has surprised many experts. “Even I’m questioning why the Army would publish this information,” Stephen Trimble, the Aviation Week editor said in a tweet. Answering a user about the accuracy of the information, Trimble said that “maybe its intentional disinformation/deception.”
Even I'm questioning why the Army would publish this information. https://t.co/PsFictjLkb
— Steve Trimble (@TheDEWLine) December 3, 2020
Maybe it's intentional disinformation/deception.
Maybe that's also giving the Army too much credit and they're just over-sharing.
— Steve Trimble (@TheDEWLine) December 3, 2020