Air Force slowly phases out predator drone

Beginning in February 2011, the Air Force will accept its last Predator delivery as it moves to the faster Reaper drone over time.

Soon Reaper and Predator drones won't have to share the sky.

The Predator, an unmanned aerial vehicle used by both the Air Force and the CIA, will be phased out beginning next year making room for its faster sibling, the Reaper, according to a report. But the fleet will remain mixed for a while.

Air Force Spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Johnson told Wired that the last Predator will be delivered in early 2011. Kimberly Kasitz, spokeswomen for Predator and Reaper manufacturer General Atomics, said the phasing out will begin in February. The parting process will be through attrition.

In 1994, a contract was awarded to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to build the Tier II, medium-altitude endurance Predator program. The Predator first flew in 1994 and entered production in August 1997 as indicated on the Air Force Technology website. The Air Force has purchased 268 Predator drones.

Able to fly twice as fast and at higher altitudes (around 50,000 feet) than the Predator, the Air Force owns 57 Reapers so far and plans to buy another 272.

The phasing out process is behind the original schedule, according to a 2008 briefing posted in part on Defense Daily.
"The Air Force will procure its last MQ-1 [Predator] platforms in FY '09 with expected delivery in FY '10," John Young, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said during an Oct. 30, 2008, Defense Department briefing. "The Air Force will begin drawing down MQ-1 platforms starting in FY '12."  

Then, Young said making a quick transition to the Reaper would not be prudent because they take longer to build and the goal of Defense Secretary Robert Gates is "to get the maximum amount of [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capability out there as fast as possible." 

In that briefing, Young talked about the advantages of having a mixed fleet. 

"I think some of the initial Air Force thinking here doesn't countenance the fact that there are things you can do from low altitudes, where the Predator is far more effective than the Reaper," he explained.

Predator drones were initially intended for surveillance and reconnaissance missions but got a new identity during their tenure. They were upgraded to carry and fire two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, writes Wired. Since their initial trip in 1995, they have seen combat over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq and Yemen. 

According to Air Force Technology, the Predator allows surveillance imagery from synthetic aperture radar, video cameras and forward-looking infrared to be distributed in real-time both to front line soldiers and to operational commanders, or worldwide in real-time through satellite communication links.