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  • More Targets For USAF
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 11:33 AM on Feb 10, 2010

    Once a long time ago I was upgraded on a flight to Orlando and found myself next to a gray-haired German who had been visiting his family in Minnesota. Over drinks I learned that he had emigrated to the US after the 1939-45 war, and that during the war he had shot down a de Havilland Mosquito and a Messerschmitt Me262.

    He'd achieved this unusual, quite possibly unique distinction as the commander of a gun crew using the 88mm L71, the highest-performing version of the classic 88. The Luftwaffe had designated free-fire zones in which anything would be fired on, regardless of identity. The Me262 pilot "thought he was immortal", my neighbor observed, and that the rules did not apply to him.

    It's occurred to me since then, from time to time, that you don't need a missile to deal with a UAV like a Predator, or even an MQ-9 Reaper. Triple-A (anti-aircraft artillery) with a maximum lethal altitude of 15000 m can drop an air target at 33,000 feet (10000 m) at an 11 km slant range, and there are few targets easier than a not-very-stealthy UAV.

    That's not the only way to shoot down a UAV, but it's probably the least expensive approach, it's unjammable and it underscores a simple fact: the operation of a Predator or Reaper is possible only when there is no effort by the enemy to contest airspace - where, if there are defenses, they have been rendered completely ineffective.

    Today's US air power planning bets heavily on such an environment. The 30-year air investment plan released last week calls for the USAF to buy 372 new Reapers in the next eight years, flying alongside some 200 US Army Warriors. Plans for a more advanced Reaper follow-on, dubbed MQ-X, are pushed to the right, with only studies to start late in the decade.

    That started me thinking about triple-A. There are not a lot of 88s on the market, but Russia and China did build a lot of 100 mm guns - a post-war Russian design called the KS-19, copied in China as the Type 59. I was Googling the guns' range and found this:
    TEHRAN (FNA)- Iran succeeded in manufacturing a smart 100mm anti-aircraft gun as part of a campaign to boost the country's defense capabilities.
    The story is accompanied by a video, showing the weapon being used with a thermal sight.

    Other notable changes from the basic gun include an eight-round autoloader for rapid burst firing.

    The video commentary describes the gun as being intended for use against aircraft, cruise missiles and helicopters - but I have my doubts. A manned aircraft will sense the attack, and jet-class maneuverability is adequate to avoid a gun shot at long range, while cruise missiles and helicopters operate at low atlitudes where the chance of a long-range gun engagement is fairly small. UAVs operate at about the right altitude - the Reaper can fly at 50,000 feet in theory, but that is a long way for its sensors to work - and can neither sense an attack nor evade it.

    Unfortunately for the UAV, there's not a lot to be done about the problem - at least not for a Reaper-like budget. Stealth is a challenge for a vehicle designed for long persistence, and giving the UAV the ability to sense threats and perform an evasive maneuver is not easy either.

    It's quite possible that one reason for the apparent shelving of MQ-X is its projected price tag - Lockheed Martin's solution was a hybrid diesel-jet device with an F-35-size fuselage.  100 mm guns, on the other hand, are cheap - particularly if based on re-used Chinese hardware.

    Tags: ar99, fy2011 budget, Reaper

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