Monday, October 06, 2008

Doesn't Anyone Remember Anything?

This POST at Wired Magazine's Danger Room tells the story of the USAF launching a High Speed Anti Radiation Missile (HARM) (it's a missile used to defeat surface to air missile guidance radars) from a drone F-4.

In the article they said:

Armed Predator and Reaper drones have become the primary weapons in the fight against Pakistani militants. But they can be pricey; the Reapers come in at around a hundred million dollars each. Which is why the Air Force is working on a cheaper option: killer zombies.

That reminded me of something I had read a few years ago about the Ryan Firebee family of drones...

Attack and Multimission RPVs: BGM-34A/B/C
In the late 1960s, the Navy studied the possibility to convert the BQM-34A Firebee target drone to a remote-controlled anti-ship missile. In several test flights, BQM-34As equipped with a TV system in the nose, were successfully flown by remote "pilots" watching the TV image. Precision low-level flight above the sea was made possible by the Ryan-developed RALACS (Radar Altimeter Low Altitude Control System). In September 1971, successful tests of Model 248 missiles (called "BQM/SSM") against ship targets showed the validity of the basic concept, but the project was terminated due to lack of funding.

In the same year, the USAF showed interest in a development of the Firebee I to be used for enemy air-defense suppression, because of the high loss rate in these missions. In March 1971, Teledyne Ryan received a contract to convert four Model 147S drones to BGM-34A (Model 234) configuration. Like the Navy's BQM/SSM, the BGM-34A was piloted by an operator watching a TV image transmitted from the drone's nose. In tests during 1971/72, the BGM-34As successfully launched AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles and electro-optically guided glide bombs against simulated SAM sites. Interestingly, almost 30 years later a firing of an AGM-114 Hellfire missile by an MQ-1L Predator UAV was much hyped as a breakthrough in armed UAV technology.

Following the successful BGM-34A tests, Teledyne Ryan developed the BGM-34B (Model 234A) operational strike RPV. This featured the higher-rated J69-T-41A engine, a modified tail, larger control surfaces, and improved operational capabilities. Eight BGM-34Bs were built, and tested in 1973/74. The tests included the modification of some of the drones with a new nose containing a LLLTV (Low Light Level Television) camera and a laser designator, to act as a "pathfinder" for weapon-carrying RPVs.

Yeah, you read that right it said late 1960's and then tested in the early to mid 70's. For those of you scoring at home that's over 30 years ago. The USAF lost interest in UAVs, and drones for much of anything other than targets in the intervening years. And now what's old is new again...only a lot more expensive.

In November 1974, the USAF had three different versions of Firebee combat RPVs in various development states: the AQM-34M reconnaissance drone, the AQM-34V ECM drone, and the BGM-34B strike RPV. It was decided to develop a single multi-mission RPV variant, designated BGM-34C (Teledyne Ryan Model 259), combing the capabilities of the three versions. Five YAQM-34Us were converted to BGM-34Cs, and these were flight-tested between September 1976 and April 1978. There were three exchangable nose sections for the BGM-34C, optimized for the reconnaissance, ECM, and strike roles. Although the tests were considered successful, no funds were approved for follow-on orders for production vehicles. This was at least in part caused by the general view of some Air Force officials, who saw the RPVs as a "competition" to the conventional manned aircraft.

Surprise, surprise. And now here we sit with the USAF saying they can't buy enough planes and the ones they have are too old...with not enough money to go around. Yeah, hindsight is 20/20, but at least some people saw this one coming.

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