United States Military History
Fr. Zeps, S.J.
2 April 2012
The General Atomics MQ-1B Predator is a revolutionary unmanned aerial vehicle that has changed the very nature of warfare in the United States. The MQ-1 Predator drone was initially developed as a reconnaissance aircraft for the Central Intelligence Agency, designed to be a very light vehicle with a number of intelligent sensors to stealthily gather intelligence. However, since it’s development in the early 1990s, the Predator has undergone a number of variations and upgrades to take on a multitude of roles. Specifically, the United States Air Force describes the Predator as “uniquely qualified to conduct irregular warfare operations in support of Combatant Commander objectives”. As public opinion continues to favor the value of every American soldier’s life, the MQ-1B Predator has had a profound impact on the United States Armed Forces.
Though the concept of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles existed almost as soon as airplanes were developed, they were severely limited in their roles until the Vietnam War. By that time, the development of the “Lightning Bug” spy planes had been sufficiently developed for use in Vietnam and southern China. The Lightning Bug drones had numerous advantages, such as various countermeasure systems, a low cost, and little risk for the controlling crew. The United States used the Lightning Bug drones on over a thousand missions during the Vietnam War, though some led to an emphasis on developing new UAV programs. The Lightning Bug employed a very basic control program, the first model developed operated on a timer, and would simply turn around after a certain amount of time had elapsed. Later models could be controlled by radio, though the drones had a short control range. The largest limitation of the Frisbee was that it could not take off or land independently; it was usually launched from a DC-130 Hercules and recovered by a helicopter after its parachute had been deployed. Despite these limitation, the Lightning Bug proved to concept of UAVs to the United States.
By 1984, the Defense Advanced Research Projects contracted Leading Systems Incorporated of California to create an endurance UAV codenamed “Amber.” Amber was initially designed for photographic reconnaissance, electronic counter-intelligence operations, and could be used as a cruise missile. The first Amber drones were able to fly continuously for approximately 38 hours, and successfully completed long range test flights in 1987. During the late 1980s, Congress pressured the numerous UAV programs through funding cuts, though the Amber drone survived after being incorporated into the Joint Program Office for UAV development. By 1990 however, the Amber program was cut, likely due to the abrasive personality of its director, Abraham Karem. Leading Systems faced financial difficulties after the failure of the Amber program, and was bought by General Atomics.
At the time of its sale, Leading Systems was developing a variation of the Amber drone named the Gnat750, which was designed as a less expensive alternative. Though its wingspan was larger than the Amber, this enabled the Gnat to weigh less but carry a larger payload. The Gnat also had an extremely long range, with an endurance of 48 or more hours. The Gnat also featured a GPS system for independent flight, as well as a configurable sensor package that could be customized for various missions. In the early 1990s, the CIA order multiple Gnat 750s to gather intelligence on the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Though the Gnat was successful on its missions, software glitches caused at least one crash and the drone was discovered to be susceptible to rough weather. The Gnat was considered a success for its configurability and endurance, and General Atomics resolved to develop a...