Predator/Reaper and the Gunships

The huge emphasis on long duration but extremely slow drones like Predator/Reaper over Iraq and Afghanistan came as a surprise to me (and obviously to many others).

These drones fly in the speed range of First World War biplanes and lack the versatility of more classic counter-insurgency aircraft like Pucara and Bronco.

The advantage of a Predator/Reaper is that no crew is in danger and the ability to patrol over an area for a whole day. The support personnel (including "pilots") sits back in CONUS, that reduces the logistical footprint in the theater, too.

This endurance is a good thing if you're willing to throw around resources to solve a problem. Permanent surveillance and on-station patrols are much more resource-intensive than an aerial escort for convoys and raids, for example.

I don't have as good info about this as I'd like to, but it seems to me as if the usual duration of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan is also too short for quick reaction aircraft of the old kind - a super-slow drone in position is better than a powerful gunship that needs ten or more minutes to arrive if the action was unpredictable and lasts only for few minutes.

Gunships like the AC-130 were the other kind of typical COIN aircraft, focused much more on fire support than on observation and forward air controlling as a Bronco.

Maybe gunships are too slow? Maybe they aren't enduring enough - or require too many resources if used for 24/7 coverage like Predators/Reapers?

Gunships like AC-130 are certainly not economical for Predator-like patrols, but smaller gunship concepts are feasible.
All you need is an aircraft with the desired loiter capability, a lightweight sensor as used in the drones, an autocannon that can fire effectively from a safe (against ManPADS) altitude and some self-defence equipment like missile warning system and flare dispenser (or even a DIRCM).

It would be feasible to build a much smaller, more affordable gunship (as demonstrated in the Helio Stallion) to solve the cost and logistics problem.

It would also be feasible to use turbofan-powered gunships instead of turboprop-powered gunships. That would increase the speed from about 600 km/h to about 800 km/h. Many civilian aircraft (including even small & fast business jets) are available for cheap and could be converted.

Finally, there's the opportunity to use the Bronco as gunship instead of as auxiliary strafing ground attack aircraft. The Bronco production line might be re-opened soon (very late in my opinion - that should have happened in 2002 for Afghanistan). The old Bronco was already used for an experiment with a 20mm Gatling turret under the belly - too much drag at that time.
A lower drag design with a single barrel 30-40mm autocannon that keeps the breech inside the fuselage might turn the very versatile Bronco into a one-size-fits-all solution for COIN air support.

The approach taken by the so far was to buy AC-27J, an aircraft similar to AC-130U, but much cheaper to operate (being practically a half AC-130).

Sven Ortmann


  1. Why the obsession with speed? The Predator only needs to go a little bit fast than the targets it is tracking or troops that it is supporting. The airplanes low speed allows it to use a very small engine, it is in essence a long winged Cessna 150 replicating that performance in a manned craft doubles the size.

    Precision guided bombs made it possible for the Predator to support troops with out getting in the range of small unit anti-aircraft guns and ManPADS. The C-130 gunships are night attack weapons because they have been shot does by such weapons during the day. Guidded munitions are the enabling technology for a new method of supporting ground troops. Getting back in to that territory is a step backwards, not a good idea.

    The weakness of the Predator is it demands totally controlled airspace, not just to keep the plane from being shot down, but to prevent the enemy to know where we are looking. It is not a front line aircraft, it has to operate where the only fighting is on the ground.

    The planes you are talking about will suck at the Predators roles, and vice versa.

  2. Obsessive or not, speed is the only thing that enables a few loitering aircraft to respond to emergencies in a large area.
    You would need maybe 3-10 gunships to cover Iraq, but Predators need to be at the action before it begins - which means hundreds of drones for full coverage.

    Now look at the size of Afghanistan and keep in mind that Bronco et al add many more capabilities and you'll see what's missing.

    Predator looks like a permanent main supply route and raid surveillance tool to me, not so much like general air support.

    OA-10's aren't much faster than a turboprop gunship (if at all).

    ManPADS - well, there are countermeasures, and the gunships are operating at high altitude anyway. If any plane can carry enough countermeasures, then a spacious aircraft like a gunship.

  3. Here is a little chart to frame some discussions, these prices are undoubtedly wrong, but I think the order of costs is correct.

    AC-130u 190M gunship
    AC-130h 132M gunship
    C-130j 67M cargo
    C-130h 39M cargo
    Ah-64 14M Attack copter
    Reaper 13M Hellfire
    A-10 this would be a interesting cost to have.
    Tucano 7M COIN
    Predator 5M surveillance
    Cessna 208 2M utility
    Sniper XR pod little over a 1M

    I am not putting forth the Predator as a general purpose air support craft. Indeed it has a fairly narrow niche, that is very similar to the niche that a gunship occupy. Uncontested airspace, reduced air to ground missile threat. The Predator has an advantage in very small size, and situation awareness traded off against area of operation and large amount of firepower. The US currently only operates AC-130 during the night, there is also an on going concern about how to get bigger guns in to the AC-130 so that it can operate at high altitudes.

    For the price of one AC-130 you can get from 10 to 38 drones,and the operating cost difference is someplace in that range also. This gets you much more situation awareness than you get with one gunship orbiting an area. Now I am not certain what would be the relative comparisons of the operating areas, of these two setups, I think there are too many variables to get a consistent answer.

    For a general close air support I like the A-10 or a Tucano like craft, if money is a issue. A general close air support means I am doing this task cause it needs to get done, not because I am good at it. So a tough plane is a good feature, unfortunately Skyraiders are not around anymore.

  4. Interestingly enough, AF Special Operations Command has recently shown interest in arming the C-27 Spartan as a "mini gunship".

  5. I mentioned that in the last sentence. AC-27J seems to become the AC-130U successor, but it's not really "mini".

  6. Why can't the predator be replaced by even cheaper unmanned hydrogen blimps? With these you have almost no footprint and can cover all main insurgent areas while having fast COIN aircrafts for the few cases in between.
    Perhaps someone has a cousin somewhere and they both agree that the best solution is an expensive new technology.
    This reminds me about the story about a useful writing tool in space. The Americans invested much money and invented the ballpoint pen. The Russians used pencils.

  7. the A10 is 11.8M$ according to wikipedia.

  8. That's irrelevant, for they haven't been in production in ages. The A-10C upgrade cost per airframe was probably even higher.