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The Drone Index: General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle

January 31, 2016

US General Atomics Gray Eagle 02

With killer UAVs transforming how reconnaissance and air support are conducted it’s not surprising the US Army wanted its own variant of the MQ-9 Reaper. The Gray Eagle is the latest iteration of the lethal platform from General Atomics and it has earned itself a remarkable combat record in the Middle East.

Though resembling its older siblings in the General Atomics stable, especially the Predator B from which it was derived, the Gray Eagle does possess several crucial differences. The Gray Eagle’s nose blister is more prominent, it runs on a different engine mounted above an inverted V-tail, and its wings have been modified.

All these improvements are prerequisites for its role as the US Army’s armed recce UAV of choice. How the Gray Eagle assumed this position is an interesting story.

With the War on Terror in full swing during the early 2000s the US Army launched the Extended-Range Multi-Purpose (ERMP) UAV program to find a replacement for their 1990s vintage twin-boom MQ-5B Hunter UAVs. One apocryphal source also claims the scuttling of the Comanche stealth helicopter spurred a search for an unmanned alternative.

US General Atomics Gray Eagle 04

General Atomics’ success with the Predator B made them the ideal contractor for the job. Over a period of four years and $214 million an upgraded Predator B dubbed the “Sky Warrior” was put through its paces until it proved itself in Iraq. On August 19, 2010, it was renamed “Gray Eagle” by the Pentagon.

This particular UAV was 28 feet long and had a 56 ft wingspan. It used a propeller-driven 165 horsepower Thielert 2.0L engine that burns either diesel or aviation fuel–an essential heavy fuel option for US Army logistics.

The Gray Eagle is suited for surveillance and attack sorties armed with Hellfire missiles. Its avionics suite is even capable of detecting IEDs and mines. By 2013 the US Army’s Gray Eagle fleet reached 75 aircraft. With conflict in the Middle East heating up the Gray Eagles received extensive upgrades for the persistent wars of the 2020s. This led to the Improved Gray Eagle or IGE equipped with a Lycoming DEL-120 heavy fuel engine. An IGE’s ceiling reaches 29,000 feet and it can remain airborne for up to 40 hours. Its payload is larger too, allowing it to carry 1,075 extra pounds in external and internal cargo, including a fuel tank for long-range flights.

When on strike missions the Gray Eagles payload consists of four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and/or GBU-44/B Viper Strike bombs. Short-range SAMs like the Stinger are applicable to its hardpoints for defeating hostile low-flying aircraft.

US Raytheon GBU-44B Viper Strike

The GBU-44/B Viper Strike guided bomb.

A unique capability of the Gray Eagle is it can operate alongside an AH-64E “Echo” Apache gunship. The tandem were sent to Afghanistan in 2014 for their combat debut. A hundred AH-64E Echo’s are now flown by the US Army.

Given its importance to ground forces the IGE’s avionics suite is comprehensive and includes the Raytheon AN/AAS-53 Common Sensor Payload (CSP) that brings together electro-optical/infrared cameras and a laser designator clustered within a familiar eyeball gimbal. There’s also a synthetic aperture radar, ground moving target indicator, and satellite comms relay encased in its bulbous nose blister.

The US Army plans to field 167 Gray Eagles before decade’s end. On two separate occasions in 2015 the US Army ordered a total of 38 IGE’s for $253 million.

The Gray Eagles are deployed under a division’s Combat Aviation Brigade for ISR and close air support. This would give ground commanders their own air force lite as they now have fixed wing combat aircraft at their disposal.

Within each Combat Aviation Brigade is a Gray Eagle company with three platoons of four UAVs each. Its logistical footprint is large, requiring one mobile ground station per company along with two universal ground stations, three ground data terminals, and one satellite communication ground data terminal.

The Common Sensor Payload found on the MQ-1 Predator. Via USAF.

The Gray Eagle’s combat record in the past several years has made it a favored tool for the Pentagon’s shadow wars against terrorist groups. An unspecified number of Gray Eagles are deployed with the special forces unit called the Night Stalkers, a.k.a. the 160th SOAR. Gray Eagles have also returned to the skies of Iraq in the war against ISIS.

In July 2015 the wreckage of a crashed Gray Eagle was found in the Iraqi desert. It’s not known how many other incidents have caused actual Gray Eagle losses. General Atomics is now marketing their latest combat drone to US allies like South Korea.