A couple of questions about drones

  1. In the two weeks preceding 9-11, I recall hearing on the news that a US spy drone had been shot down in Afghanistan, and one in Iraq. Given the poor record of these countries’ (especially Afghan) anti-aircraft fire, this indicates to me that there must have been significant drone activity over those two countries, for them to have downed the craft. I had never heard of drones being shot down before these incidents. Does this indicate an escalation of intelligence gathering against rogue states in the days preceding September’s atrocities?

  2. On the news this morning (Sky, UK) it was reported that a drone has destroyed a house in which Al Qaeda lieutenants were meeting. The footage they showed was first some familiar library stock of a small and flimsy-looking spy drone with drooping wings. They then cut to Pentagon-released footage of an alleged drone’s wing, taken from an on-board camera, that looked far more substantial, and appeared horizontal rather than drooping, which bore and fired a missile. The footage then cut to a house exploding. Is there more than one type of drone? If there isn’t, why would the propagandize about something like that?

Yes. There are various forms of pure-recon drones, that carry naught but cameras, and at least one type that is a more substantial airframe and can be fitted with ordnance racks. The sequence of images you and I saw, I venture to say, is probably a composite of various images unrelated to the actual strike.

There are indeed many types of drones. The military is experimenting backing up the conventional fighter wings with drone aircraft handled from shipboard operations. Essentially, a videogame where the targets are real. Upside: planes are cheaper, better because of the lack of pilotspace and life-support, and the pilots ain’t going to die if his plane gets blown up. Downside: Vulnerability to jamming, I expect. Although if anyone can do ECCM, its the USA>

The UAV (Unmanned Air Vehicle) most widely used in Afghanistan right now (and most widely talked about in the press) is the RQ-1 Predator. It’s a fixed-wing single piston-engine-powered aircraft made mostly from composites. Its primary mission is intelligence gathering (Electro-optical or synthetic-aperture-radar). It’s operated by the US Air Force. It flies up to about 25000 ft altitude and is pretty slow and unmaneuverable. Not at all hard to shoot down - if you can spot it, which is difficult considering its small size and relatively quiet and cool engine.

A few of them have been fitted with Hellfire anti-radar missiles, with limited success. That’s probably what was used to destroy the house mentioned in the OP.

From the USAF:

The inventory figure quoted above is inaccurate. The USAF probably has dozens. Quite a few have been shot down over Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans.

Here’s some info from the FAS

I got so excited talking about Predator that I didn’t actually address the OP.

  1. I don’t recall any specific instances, but I seem to remember UAVs being “lost” (wink, wink) over Iraq and Bosnia well before Sept 2001. It might be that the locals have recently gotten better at finding and shooting at the UAVs, rather than an increase of UAV activity. (There has certainly been an increase in UAV activity over Afghanistan (and other regions) since Sept 11, but I don’t think that’s what the OP is asking.)

  2. I haven’t heard of this incident or seen the footage, but I think JRDelirious has it. The media probably spliced together unrelated sequences of footage to provide some imagery to accompany the story. There are indeed many types of UAV, some more substantial than others. As I mentioned above, the Predator is the only one I know of that has been fitted with missiles.

I was a pilot (external) in the Marines for two years of the Pioneer UAV. I also, have had the opertunity to fly two others during their evaluation. These were the Hugan and the Bell/Textron Eagle Eye. Neither of which were fielded to my knowledge.

To address issues of the OP, what has been posted in the other replies is quite accurate. There are more than one type out there. The Predator is the most prevelant.

I would suggest if a missle was used against a house, it was not an anti-radiation missle, unless that house was broadcasting microwave radiation for some reason.

My main purpose is to address the talk of shooting them down. A few facts they never seem to cover in the news:

  1. These things go down ALL the time with no one shooting at them. They are not very redundant. They are designed to be essentially throw away items. Keep em cheap enough you don’t mind putting them in as much heat as needed to get good intelligence. So, most likely, if one goes down for whatever kind of mechanical/electical reason, the “enemy” claims they shot it down.
  2. They are almost completely composite, and run small piston engines in a pusher configuration. Getting radar or heat targeting weapons systems to “see” them is just short of impossible. Our own weaponry could not do the job. Every year, we went out to fly our planes for our own missle batteries to see if their latest hardware/software upgrades would allow them to track our UAV’s. (no, they never actually launches missles at them). Every year they decided they couldn’t and planned to come back next year to try again. I would suspect that by now (I haven’t been involved since about early '98 or so) we can probably do the job. But, there is about ZERO chance Afganistan or Iraq would have sensor technology up to date enough to do it.
  3. Also, unless the operator of the UAV is really interested in getting close to the action for detail, it would be pretty unusual someone would even realize they were in the area. From mission altitude they are effectively optically invisible and not loud enough to hear. The cameras are where a great deal of the money goes to in these birds, and they are simply incredible. So, sending back live video (day or night) from 10k to 20k feet has PLENTY of detail.

And to clarify what and “external” pilot is from the top of my post. There are two types of pilots typically for UAV’s. (though, this is changing) Internal pilots sit inside a shelter and fly the plane during the mission by instruments and the camera. This is typically done by manipulating the autopilot and has little to do with “piloting”. External pilots handle the local pattern operations, specifically launching and recovering the aircraft. The fly the plane in pretty much the same manner as hobby model plane pilots do. They stand on the side of the runway and do the flying by looking directly at the plane in the air. Of course, having headset comm with the guys in the shelter is nice for accurate altitude, airspeed, and range calls.

As for the drooping wings, the wings of most aircraft droop while they’re on the ground. Remember, in flight the wings are supporting the rest of the plane, not the other way around, so they’ll be flexed upward. This may also lead to the wings appearing more “rigid” in the air.

Actually, while the inventory listed may be inaccurate, it is not obvious from the listing. The “5” listed as the inventory are the number of UAV units, each with multiple planes.

This board is incredible! Thanks for the info.

If they only have a range of 400 nautical miles, where would they have been launched from prior to 9/11 to spy over Afghanistan, when (apparently) the aircraft carriers didn’t move in to the Indian Ocean until after 9/11? Would Pakistan have allowed this kind of thing?

Nit: Hellfire missiles aren’t anti-radar. They’re laser or radar guided antitank missiles, which can also be used against other targets.

Oh, and why were there predators roaming around afghanistan 2 weeks before 9/11?

Aside from the OPs memory, do we have an assertion for a pre-9/11 overflight of Afghanistan? I do not recall reading or hearing about that. There were multiple claims by Iraq in the weeks preceding 9/11, but I don’t remember any Agfhan claims.

This is the first I’ve heard of any US activity in Afghanistan before 9/11 - jjimm, are you sure you’re remembering correctly? I do recall news reports of a Predator being shot down in Iraq a week or two earlier…

I could have sworn it was on the BBC radio news; I had just finished reading a book about Afghanistan and was interested to have heard some news about the country; it was when the Afghan refugees were being refused entry to Australia.

Though now I search the BBC website archives there’s nothing there. In fact I can’t find record of it anywhere on Google searches. Incidnents in Iraq on and before 9/11 sure, and apart from confirmed reports in Afghanistan on Sept. 23, I can find nothing else. So I guess I have to conclude that I’m mistaken. Apologies.

The earlier comment about “video game with real targets” may be almost prescient. With a functional satellite link and high altitude launch capability, it’s entirely possible for people back in the States to be selecting and firing on targets halfway around the world.

I can see it now: The Joint Chiefs, the head of the CIA, and the President, all hunched over a console in the War Room:
“Ooh! Ooh! There’s one! No, not there! Over there! Yeah! That’s the one! Gittim! Woah, good shot! Can I go next?”

A bit amusing, and a little scary, too.

Thanks for the clarification, Tom. From the USAF link I posted above, it says that each unit contains four aircraft. Five units means a total of twenty aircraft. I vaguely remember reading about an inventory of upwards of 41 aircraft, but I have no cite (maybe from Aviation Week) - I may be misremembering. In any case, the cite of five units is from August 2000. I’m guessing there may be more now.

Damn. You are correct, Senor.

I’ve gotta be more careful in this forum.

I found my cite. From page 39 of the 12 Nov 2001 issue of Aviation Week (sorry, the quote is from a paper copy, so I have no direct link):

I love AvWeek.