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June 9, 2010 5:36 AM   Subscribe

Everybody's heard about the "secret" launch of the military's newest spacedrone the X-37, and everybody's heard about the other "secret" launch on the same day. The military has launched another type of spacedrone. This one looks a lot less like this and more like this. Unfortunately they've hit a snag. (previously) It's all part of the the U.S. military's prompt global strike doctrine. Some people think this may be a bad idea.

What does this mean for 5th generation warfare? But wait there's some disagreement about what 5g warfare is. Can we even define war anymore?
posted by AElfwine Evenstar (74 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well China's space program is only about 50 years behind ours, so anything to keep that edge right? Also, Russia!

Oh, and judging from this link, it was NASA who kidnapped and anally probed me, which in retrospect makes more sense than aliens.
posted by Panjandrum at 5:44 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not that I'm a huge fan of building more and better weapons. But it seems to me that the government should be trying to make drones cheaper not more expensive.

(looks at wikipedia) The predator costs 4.5 million and the "reaper" costs Reaper costs 10.5 million. Now they want to put 'em in space?

I don't see why a drone should costs more then $100k. It's a hard to imagine how a predator could really be better then 45 cheap drones.
posted by delmoi at 5:46 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is a political nightmare. Here's a weapon that looks like a strategic weapon, but is tactical, and takes less than 10 minutes from launch to impact.

What do you do, Mr. Russian President, if the US launches one vaugely in your direction? You have three minutes to decide.
posted by eriko at 5:47 AM on June 9, 2010 [5 favorites]


I don't see why a drone should costs more then $100k.

Why is that? What the costs with building and designing a drone that you think can be done cheaper?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:53 AM on June 9, 2010


Unfortunately they've hit a snag.

They can have it back for the sum of … one million dollars!
posted by pracowity at 5:53 AM on June 9, 2010


I forgot to add this link. Apparently UAV technology has been around since the 50's.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 6:03 AM on June 9, 2010


You know how they have all that footage from the space program of test rockets exploding spectacularly? I can only imagine the reaction to that nowadays.
posted by smackfu at 6:04 AM on June 9, 2010


We need more drones like this and less of the other kind...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:07 AM on June 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


Why is that? What the costs with building and designing a drone that you think can be done cheaper?

What do you think takes all that money? Individuals can build large, remote controlled aircraft for recreational use. Cessna 162 costs just $112k. What does a drone need to have that a cessna doesn't? And given the fact that the drones don't even need to carry a person, and the engineering doesn't need to be as careful since no one's life will be on the line, what's the cost driver here?

The design costs shouldn't affect the unit production costs.
posted by delmoi at 6:25 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


And given the fact that the drones don't even need to carry a person, and the engineering doesn't need to be as careful since no one's life will be on the line...

Except all the people who it could target? Or crash into?
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 6:34 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


What does a drone need to have that a cessna doesn't?

Survivability, weapons, encrypted communications, tie-ins to existing battlefield intelligence, and failsafe programming to bring it home if it loses contact with its base?

They could probably do it for less than $10 million each, but the people that know how to do this stuff are expensive as hell.
posted by Malor at 6:39 AM on June 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Except all the people who it could target? Or crash into?

The targeting is done by a person with the current drones. And military helicopters crash pretty frequently already, and they're still used. The engineering standards you need to use for an unnamed craft are a lot lower then what's used in aviation generally. Look at the concept of human rated space technology vs. what's used for satellites.

And also, if crashing were that big of a concern, large remote controlled planes would be illegal.
posted by delmoi at 6:42 AM on June 9, 2010


I can't tell if you're being purposefully obtuse here delmoi, or if you're really just not getting it. I have to head to a meeting, but really, imagine that I sprinkled wikipedia-style [cite] tags throughout your comment.


The design costs shouldn't affect the unit production costs.

In small-run products, the design costs are likely most of the total cost. That's pretty evident in the cost of spy aircraft in general, where justifying the building of more planes is difficult so the per-unit cost remains relatively high. Why is this any different?
posted by mikeh at 6:59 AM on June 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


delmoi: "The design costs shouldn't affect the unit production costs."

Well, perhaps they shouldn't, but they do — the design costs of a new system are built into the price of the first production run, at least usually. I think this is done mostly so that the Government isn't on the hook for a lot of R&D costs if the system turns out to be a total failure; they only want to pay for all that development if it results in a usable system.

So for something like a fighter jet, the initial order (the order which caused the system to be developed) has a per-unit cost that's very high. But then the marginal cost after that is considerably lower. (Although in some cases they will continue recovering R&D costs beyond the initial units, so it's not necessarily 100% front-loaded, but my understanding is that a lot of it is.)

Of course, if the public gets sticker shock and the initial order is reduced, you end up having to spread the fixed R&D expenses across fewer units, so the per-unit cost can actually increase if you reduce the order. I think this has actually happened with the F-22 program.

However I agree with the general sentiment that what we need are lots of cheap drones, not one or two hideously expensive ones; I think the history of modern warfare has validated the "stamp 'em out cheap" philosophy fairly often.

Although the ramjet thing is pretty awesome, I have to give them that. As far as my inner 9-year-old is concerned, short of dropping tungsten rods from space, it doesn't get any more holyshit than a hypersonic cruise missile.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:05 AM on June 9, 2010


I don't think anyone here is remotely qualified to decide whether the Predator is too expensive. It's a bit laughable to just throw out a number like $100k and say it should cost that because that's what it seems like a drone should cost.
posted by smackfu at 7:06 AM on June 9, 2010 [7 favorites]


I forgot to add this link. Apparently UAV technology has been around since the 50's.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:03 AM on June 9 [+] [!]


Remote controlled aircraft have been around for longer than that -- in 1944, Operation Aphrodite was implemented, which called for a mothership and a remote controlled drone bomber. Because the controls were insufficient for takeoff, the plans called for a two man crew to take off, reach a certain altitude, arm the explosives, turn the controls over, and bail out.

One of the pilots of the drone aircraft was the older brother of future President John F Kennedy, Lt. Joseph P Kennedy Jr. On July 23, 1944, Joseph Kennedy took off in a B-24 loaded with 21,170 lb of torpex explosive. Two minutes and ten seconds before crew bailout, the bombs detonated prematurely, killing everybody on board, destroying the aircraft, and damaging a chase plane piloted by FDR's son, Colonel Elliot Roosevelt.
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:07 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, this thread is really about space drones, not the hypothetical costs of drones, but I would think that the government would want to account for the development and unit costs separately. Since there's only one seller and only one buyer, that would reduce risk for everyone.
posted by delmoi at 7:07 AM on June 9, 2010


I think the second "this" tag looks like a Star Destroyer.
posted by 3FLryan at 7:15 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


...er, the pictures in the second "this" tag, that is.
posted by 3FLryan at 7:15 AM on June 9, 2010


Since there's only one seller and only one buyer, that would reduce risk for everyone.

What makes you think there'd only be one buyer? For example, at least four countries use the Predator, and at least five countries use the Reaper.
posted by jedicus at 7:18 AM on June 9, 2010


there's some disagreement about what 5g warfare is.

Surely that's warfare done coming out of a really steep dive?
posted by alby at 7:18 AM on June 9, 2010


I'm sure that technically you could call the V1 an unmanned aerial vehicle - is external guidance a requirement?

Interetsingly the raid Joseph Kennedy dies in was targeted at a V3 site, though the V3 was basically a supergun rather than anything like the V1 or V2.
posted by Artw at 7:29 AM on June 9, 2010


Thank you for the FPP: although a former aero engineer, I had heard of HyperSoar but I figured it was yet another wave-rider X plane --your FAS link finally explained it properly for me.

The idea of skipping in and out of the atmosphere to use air-breathing engines for a near-space plane qualifies as, IMNSHO, freaking awesome. If NASA et al pull off the challenges around the design, this will be a massive break through.
posted by costas at 7:32 AM on June 9, 2010


One more step towards the already well articulated DoD goal of building a autonomous robot army.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:34 AM on June 9, 2010


The thing I don't get is how using a drone at Mach 20 is going to reassure everyone that we're not using nukes, but a cruise missile won't. I get how they can be distinguished by the flight paths, but if you can put a conventional weapon in a drone, surely you can put in a nuke, right? If another nuclear-armed power is seriously worried that someone's going to drop a nuke on them, they're going to get pretty twitchy when they see anything that might be armed come screaming out of space.
posted by echo target at 7:44 AM on June 9, 2010


There's a two discussions here:
1. The military, doing what it always does, research and development into new technology.
2. A global strike doctrine.

This post links the two without any evidence.

In fact the X-37 unmanned shuttle was a NASA program that the Department of Defence took over because NASA ran out of money. I heard it was used to test some spy satellite technology, but that's just a guess. The problem with spy satellites is that they are never where you want them to be when you need them to be there.
posted by eye of newt at 7:50 AM on June 9, 2010


What ever happened to Pournelle's "flying crowbars"? Those are like the drone's drone. Tungsten telephone poles falling from SPAAAAAACE!
posted by steef at 7:59 AM on June 9, 2010


Why do these things cost so much? Let me count the ways...

DoD Acquisitions 101

Let's assume you're starting from scratch. This is less common nowadays since the "Perry Memo" around 1995 that directed the military to use Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) equipment as much as possible. Predators are not off the shelf, so we will go with a blank sheet of paper.

The government spends some time figuring out what they want. Not, "we want to buy a Cessna Skyhawk and put some fuckin' missiles on this bitch!" but more "we want capabilities x, y, and z." This is usually competed out to several companies who each propose a different solution (see the Joint Strike Fighter competition between Boeing and Lockheed). The government chooses a design based on a number of factors, but estimated cost factors pretty heavily in the decision.

The contractor(s) usually have a 7 year timeline or so from contract award to Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP). This includes all the design work, reviews with the government, prototype development, testing, etc.

The government makes several buys in small lots (LRIPs); JSF, for example, has 4 or 5 LRIP blocks before final production capability. At any point during this, the government may change its mind and not purchase any more aircraft.

So why does a Predator cost 4.5 million dollars? There are a few things going on here:
-Costs associated with competing and winning contracts are usually passed on to the government
-Unique development challenges. Military systems have to handle different environments than civilian equipment. "But it's all the same air!" you might say. This is true, but (for aircraft, for example), military stuff needs to go faster/turn quicker/fly higher/whatever than a commercial airliner. Military equipment also deals with "induced" environments that are quite different than commercial; for something like the Predator, there are significant electromagnetic differences (you're transmitting and receiving a bunch more data than than DirecTV antenna on JetBlue's fuselage) and all the electronic equipment needs to play nice together. Equipment may be in a fuel-air environment and needs to not cause an explosion. Military aircraft have more severe vibration profiles because the builders are optimizing for performance and not for passenger comfort.

If you wanted to use your cell phone during taxi and takeoff, that 767 could start getting way more expensive.
-"Urgent Operational Need" often is the name of the game, especially for Predators nowadays. Want a new airplane? That might be 100k. Want one flying missions in less than a year? Now you're looking at 10 or 20 times that. Schedule over cost.
-Military unique systems, especially related to Information Assurance. Want a radio? It's got encryption. GPS? Anti-jam and anti-spoofing capabilities. Any datalinks are encrypted and protected. Weapon systems don't occur on civilian aircraft - and here, "weapons" are any payload used to conduct a mission, from bombs to surveillance gear.


My point, I guess, is that there's a lot going on here. Even if the military were to buy, say, a 767 "off the shelf" it would be more expensive simply because they need to put equipment in there to play with military comm and nav systems, add the electronic protections, etc.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:01 AM on June 9, 2010 [49 favorites]


Heck, the AGM-114 Hellfire missiles that the drones fire cost $68k each.
posted by smackfu at 8:07 AM on June 9, 2010


I get how they can be distinguished by the flight paths, but if you can put a conventional weapon in a drone, surely you can put in a nuke, right?

Yep. If you can carry 200kg in a weapon's payload, that weapon is potentially a nuclear weapon delivery system. ICBM warheads, in their reentry vehicles, endure far more heating and stress than this weapon would provide -- they make a full reentry at near orbital velocity -- and thus, this could carry a nuke.

You could posit a weapon that's hyper accurate -- as in, it can pick which window to fly into -- and build it so that it could only carry about 5kg of explosive, but what I'd say is "What keeps you from scaling that up to 50kg, where a nuclear weapon becomes possible, or 200kg, where it becomes trivial.

I choose 200kg for a simple reason -- the W76 warhead and reentry vehicle masses 164kg, yielding 100kt, the W62 warhead masses 114kg and yields 170kt -- with the reentry vehicle it masses 362 kg.
posted by eriko at 8:09 AM on June 9, 2010


"This post links the two without any evidence."

One follows from the other. It's also entertwined with full spectrum dominance. If you want to achieve FSD you also need to maintain it or else the whole doctrine is BS from the start. The same thing applies here. The Pentagon sets the long term strategic goals and the R&D side is set on a parallel track. Either way the x-37 and falcon projects are most assuredly part of our program to attain prompt global strike ability.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 8:13 AM on June 9, 2010


I don't think anyone here is remotely qualified...

Ha! Pun intended?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:31 AM on June 9, 2010


What does a drone need to have that a cessna doesn't?

Beyond malor's list, range and endurance.

Your Cessna 162 can fly for a little over four hours. If you want an hour of loiter over a target area, that means 90 minutes out, an hour of loiter, 90 minutes back. This gives it a combat radius of 170 nautical miles.

A Predator is designed to fly 400 miles to a target area, loiter 14 hours, and then fly back. It also has a much higher ceiling, so it can fly at altitudes where it's harder to spot or hear, and even if you do spot or hear it it should be harder to tell just what it's paying attention to.

So to do a Predator's job, you'd need to have several Cessnas flying out, flying back, being readied on the ground, just to keep one constantly on patrol over the target area. And you'd need many more Cessa-drone bases to be able to cover a large country than you would Predator bases, each base with skilled people on it, each base presenting a target.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:52 AM on June 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


They just want you to think they've run into a problem.
posted by ged at 9:13 AM on June 9, 2010


Considering the screwup rate with current drone attacks and all the people and things that weren't really targets that keep getting killed and blown up, how is doing this bigger, faster, farther going to be anything other than a disaster?
“There’s always a concern that a conventional warhead on an ICBM might be confused with a nuclear device – what can you do to prove otherwise?” Dr. Mark Lewis, the former chief scientist of the Air Force, tells Danger Room. ”With a high lift vehicle, your trajectory would be so different that no one would likely confuse it with something more sinister.”
What?

"Excuse me Feckless Leader, but the Duhmericans have launched an attack that is going to hit maybe here, we can't tell because these things are maneuverable, in about a minute and a half. Sorry we were a little slow picking it up. I know we didn't tell anyone about our doomsday project because it was supposed to be a secret, but this puts us in a bit of a quandary.

"Should we launch all of our last ditch defensive weapons loaded with plague, crop diseases, anthrax and smallpox now or wait until we know the Duhmericans target? Of course, if we're the target, the doomsday project will take over and avenge us.

"They've been saying for a long time that we can tell what these things are armed with because of the trajectory, but we can't figure out the trajectory and we don't know what it's armed with. It's all very sinister. Oops. Sorry, times up." *fit hits the shan*

I'm not making this up. You didn't know we had that gun pointed at all our heads?

They all sound so rational when they're talking about the technical details, but each round of the escalation of asymetrical warfare (or 5gw) is enormously destabilizing because it increases the uncertainty, raises the level of terror and -- thanks to Moore's Law and a few other things -- vastly increases the risk of proliferation over time. Collectively, the whole project of putting such vast funding into escalatory technologies is insane. It just keeps making things worse and worse.

The Russian BW program was partly due to their falling behind in the arms race that culminated in Star Wars. They were coming under pressure from our pursuit of something like the Strategy of Technology - using military Kinesianism to grow our economy while pursuing an overwhelming technical advantage in the nuclear arms races that would lead either to the economic collapse or nuclear blackmail of our opponents. So they decided to pursue a direction orthogonal to where we were headed and started loading up hot ICBMs with plague, among other things.

Sub-sonic cruise missile tech is already so cheap it's widely available at the toy/hobby level. Given the navigation package, the capabilities are just those of whatever vehicle you attach it to. Most gun-runners have vehicles that would put this in the WMD mass-casualty category.

So we're still pursuing this high-tech pipe dream of gaining a momentary technical advantage (charmingly sold as "full spectrum dominance") that will cow our opponents into surrender. Please observe how successful we are at cowing Al Qaida and the Taliban.

But since that brinksmanship game involves playing chicken with tens of thousands or even millions of lives, we fool ourselves with the notion of it being a deterrent or dominance or something that sounds sexy and military at the same time.

Meanwhile, we're laying the foundation for smaller and smaller sub-state actors being able to commandeer this tech at some point in the future. And encouraging smaller states (like Pakistan, Israel, India, Iran, North Korea and Burma for a few examples) to pursue maniacal strategies of proliferation in search of the pseudo-deterrence (or is it dominance?) we claim to be building.

It's nuts and because it's multilateral, it is far more likely to end badly than the simpler bilateral rivalry with the Soviets. (and look how swell that turned out...)

Notice I haven't even touched on the aspect of using one of these things in any way immediately putting every finger on every WMD trigger on the planet....

The underlying problem is we (which is to say the US as a nation) are pursuing an essentially economic strategy with military implications. And this national strategy has not been examined or debated in a way to show that there is understanding or consent. We've just sort of allowed ourselves to get dragged into it without really thinking about it at all.

But by all means, carry on the technobabble. It all sounds so rational.
posted by warbaby at 9:14 AM on June 9, 2010 [9 favorites]


delmoi:
"I don't see why a drone should costs more then $100k. It's a hard to imagine how a predator could really be better then 45 cheap drones.
"

  • Loiter time
  • Operating altitude
  • Imaging systems (FLIR, radar, etc)
  • Telemetry
  • Weapons systems
  • Autonomous operations

  • posted by joshwa at 9:16 AM on June 9, 2010




    I you thought MIR or Columbia was a strange sight on the ill-fated final re-entry, this thing with twice the payload of a B-52 could be quite the international fireworks display.
    posted by -harlequin- at 9:43 AM on June 9, 2010


    I think you could pretty easily build a drone for $100k. As pointed out, hobbiests already build autonomous and remote drones that are very crude but crudely serviceable for a few specific types of mission, for just a few grand.
    The thing is, you could build a much better and more useful and more versatile drone for $5M, and the R&D of many years of engineering is going to be rolled into the cost on top of that.
    And the pentagon likes the best toys, not the cheapest toys :-)
    posted by -harlequin- at 9:49 AM on June 9, 2010


    Nice post, and welcome AElfwine EvanStar..

    I'm still just bemused that DARPA even has such an utterly cool public facing website. I mean, aren't they supposed to be super double dare top secret classified and such..

    I like the Falcon platform better than the X-37's Space Shuttle configuration, but sounds like the Falcon system needs some major heat-tiling and maybe the final design is going to be somewhere in between.

    /Slight derail, I was hoping this post was finally going to have some real photos of the "Aurora" plane. Perhaps it was a prototype for the "Falcon system."

    Man, I love this stuff. I need to get me a job inside the military industrial complex, I hear the benefits are great and there's never any layoffs.

    Also you get to explore your darkside. BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

    posted by Skygazer at 10:22 AM on June 9, 2010


    Individuals can build large, remote controlled aircraft for recreational use.

    If you can build a large, remote controlled aircraft that can be operated from halfway around the world and fly with hours on end with targeting and weapons systems for under 100K, you need to start a company, 'cause you'll be filthy rick.
    posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:26 AM on June 9, 2010


    Filthy Rick is the man, leave him outta this. Anyway, this project is very Flying Crowbar-esque, isn't it?
    posted by Mister_A at 10:28 AM on June 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


    Lacks the utterly insane kills-everyone-who-comes-near-it-with-radiation angle...
    posted by Artw at 10:51 AM on June 9, 2010


    Yes, this is more like Flying Crowbar as designed by people who don't cackle and twirl their mustachioes. Bit of a pity.
    posted by Mister_A at 11:04 AM on June 9, 2010


    You're thinking of Project Pluto, the nuclear-ramjet hypersonic cruise missile.

    Flying Crowbars were Project Thor (among others), which boiled down to putting lots of tungsten or DU darts (with basic target recognition) in orbit that could be deorbited on command and strike down with great vengeance and furious anger on the target area.

    ISTR someone figured out that it would make a whole shitload more sense to take the launchers you'd need to put the darts in orbit and just throw those at the targets directly, and skip the whole "putting things in orbit" part.
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:04 AM on June 9, 2010


    O WAIT

    I see that they also called Pluto the flying crowbar. Je suis desole'.
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:05 AM on June 9, 2010


    Project Pluto == Flying Crowbar, at least according to Air & Space magazine - not sure what the the same terms was ever used for Rods from God.
    posted by Artw at 11:07 AM on June 9, 2010


    I don't think anyone here is remotely qualified to decide whether the Predator is too expensive.

    Bullshit. It's a remote-controlled prop-driven model plane. You can make something very similar to it, from scratch, for less than 10 grand... hobbyists already have. The only serious cost factor would be the electronics, and there is no way in hell that's worth more than a million. It's simply congressional graft that keeps the price so high - in other times that would be considered profiteering.
    posted by Slap*Happy at 12:22 PM on June 9, 2010


    Bullshit. It's a remote-controlled prop-driven model plane.

    Wikipedia says different: The MQ-1 Predator is a system, not just an aircraft. The fully operational system consists of four air vehicles (with sensors), a ground control station (GCS), and a Predator primary satellite link communication suite. The U.S. Air Force considers the Predator unmanned aircraft system (UAS) a "Tier II" vehicle.[2]
    posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:30 PM on June 9, 2010


    I think you could pretty easily build a drone for $100k. As pointed out, hobbiests already build autonomous and remote drones that are very crude but crudely serviceable for a few specific types of mission, for just a few grand.

    To be clear, the military does have simple drones like the RQ-11 Raven. $35k for that one, which is considered inexpensive. Main difference from a hobbyist toy is that it's idiot-proof: it flies surveillance patterns on its own, can be launched by throwing it, and lands itself without a runway.
    posted by smackfu at 12:31 PM on June 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


    One other fun fact is that the Predator is made by General Atomics, who did Project Orion (spaceships powered by nuclear explosions) back in the 60's.
    posted by smackfu at 12:45 PM on June 9, 2010


    "Interetsingly the raid Joseph Kennedy dies in was targeted at a V3 site"
    from the link:

    "The guns would not be movable, and would be permanently aimed at London."

    Wow! Hitler was serious about dominating the British Isles wasn't he. Cheers Skygazer, Sorry no Aurora photos :( I have been interested in the Hypersoar concept for quite a few years. They have been piecemeal testing the needed technologies.

    A Hypersonic Attack Platform: The S3 Concept is an interesting read. It basically lays out a three vehicle plan. From the paper:

    "Proposed is an integrated weapons platform approach, the S3 concept, which would accomplish these objectives. It involves three separate, but integrated, vehicles. These include the SHAAFT (supersonic/hypersonic attack aircraft), the SHMAC (standoff hypersonic missile with attack capabilities), and the SCREMAR (space control with a reusable military aircraft). SHAAFT, SHMAC, SCREMAR (S3) can accomplish the broad roles of Global Reach/Global Power, in-theater dominance, and access to space."

    Warbaby said: "But by all means, carry on the technobabble. It all sounds so rational."

    Actually my main idea was a discussion about the defenition of war in the context of U.S. military doctrine, but I also like the technical side to.

    Bonus SLYT
    posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 1:01 PM on June 9, 2010


    The MQ-1 Predator is a system, not just an aircraft.

    This is also a good point. You're paying for the aircraft plus a big trailer that the operators sit in.

    Another difference between the Predator and an R/C airplane - the Predator has a two-inch thick operator's manual. I know, it's sitting on my desk. I would also challenge the hobbyist to include military-grade encryption on their radio control unit and still have low enough latency that the plane is flyable.
    posted by backseatpilot at 1:29 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


    DUDE, we can open source it and totally get your military grade encryption.
    posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:49 PM on June 9, 2010


    Bullshit. It's a remote-controlled prop-driven model plane. You can make something very similar to it, from scratch, for less than 10 grand... hobbyists already have.

    Hobbyists can build and control a UAV that can haul around a sensitive and heavy set of sensors for 2300 miles (or 400 miles for 14 hours), for $10K?
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:53 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


    I was going to mention something about how all the previous smart missiles weren't really so smart and the target hit rate was pretty low, IIRC, except where civilians were concerned. Then warbaby said a lot of what I'd say, and better, so I'll just point to that.
    posted by Zack_Replica at 2:08 PM on June 9, 2010


    Sure it disappeared. It's stealthy!
    posted by battleshipkropotkin at 4:09 PM on June 9, 2010


    the Predator has a two-inch thick operator's manual. I know, it's sitting on my desk.

    Woah. Does this mean that Davis Square has an air force now? After a few "target strikes" those terrorists in Harvard square are going to see their property values plummet!
    posted by Humanzee at 5:00 PM on June 9, 2010


    Here's a site to help you get started on your home-grown drone. Milspec realtime encryption is a little trickier, but ZRTP over a HAM radio interface should do nicely, and dude, we've had gyroscopic autopilot since 1912.

    Ten grand is definitely too low-ball for a production drone and its support infrastructure, but bear in mind that a P38 Lightning, arguably the most advanced American fighter in the war, cost only $100k, the equivalent of $1.3 mil today. (P58 mustangs were only $50k, or $600k in modern money.)

    There is a crapload of waste, fraud and abuse going unquestioned in the military.
    posted by Slap*Happy at 5:11 PM on June 9, 2010


    So you're saying we should send P38 Lighting planes to do the job of drones?
    posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:11 PM on June 9, 2010


    You're all idiots, especially the people who have professional experience with aerospace engineering and weapons systems. I built a UAV with hella sensors, like a hundred at least, plus crazy-ass encryption that actually has negative latency (obviously) and an AI so advanced that the craft can, in flight, build a better, handsomer version of itself AND you, and I can launch into low-earth orbit with a tennis racquet. AND THAT RACQUET COST 10 BUCKS!
    posted by clockzero at 6:48 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


    Hrrrrm. Ten bucks? And it only transports matter?
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:06 PM on June 9, 2010


    Fun fact: there's a Predator control console in every Burger Town. I think it's in the franchising contract.
    posted by turgid dahlia at 8:45 PM on June 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


    backseatpilot: "Why do these things cost so much? Let me count the ways..."

    This might have been just a story told to a junior guy asking too many questions, but i remember being told that part of the reason military contracts got so expensive had to do with their classified capabilities.

    The way it was explained to me was that the government had to have two sets of capabilities defined when they were putting new projects up for bid. the first would be used in the first stage, and would use only the unclassified requirements (which could probably be accomplished for a reasonable price) since they were open to the public by law. once a contractor put in the low bid and won, the government could then go back and tell the contractor they wanted certain capabilities added to the project, since those could be kept secret. the expensive part was changing the already completed designs which might be totally different from the final one.
    posted by ArgentCorvid at 9:09 PM on June 9, 2010


    I'm amused by all the references to encryption as one of the things driving the cost of drones up, since (a) encryption is cheap and (b) people have been receiving drone video on COTS receivers for about a decade now. (Yeah, the control channel is presumably better-protected. Still…)
    posted by hattifattener at 9:52 PM on June 9, 2010


    So you're saying we should send P38 Lighting planes to do the job of drones?

    No, I'm saying a drone shouldn't cost more than 1.3mil. Advances in materials, manufacturing and electronics should be bringing the costs down, not drive them up, especially for a prop-driven airplane that doesn't even have to accommodate a human on board. P38's were using some seriously advanced materials and electronics tech for the time, and on top of that, was very labor-intensive to build and engineer (no computers, no robots.)

    I seriously doubt there's anything in the Predator that wasn't old-hat sometime in the '80s, apart from ultra-cheap hi-po embedded system horsepower, which should be making it less expensive to build, not more.
    posted by Slap*Happy at 9:54 PM on June 9, 2010


    The only thing in common between a Predator and a P38 is that they both fly.
    posted by smackfu at 5:47 AM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


    Does this mean that Davis Square has an air force now?

    I prefer the biplane myself. I can wear the silk scarf and goggles, and no one can hear you laugh maniacally if you're stuck in the UAV trailer.

    Fun fact: in the early days, pilots would duke it out by pulling out their pistols to try to shoot down the enemy.
    posted by backseatpilot at 5:57 AM on June 10, 2010


    No, I'm saying a drone shouldn't cost more than 1.3mil.

    Asking seriously, can you back this up somehow? I'll totally admit to not knowing a damn thing about designing, building or manufacturing a weapons system, but your (and others) insistence that this could be done for under $100k is intriguing and I'd love to see some facts and figures on how to do that.
    posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:58 AM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


    I don't mean to keep jumping in to this, but I was thinking about the numbers again.

    a P38 Lightning, arguably the most advanced American fighter in the war, cost only $100k, the equivalent of $1.3 mil today

    Wikipedia tells me they built over 10,000 (10,037 to be exact) P38s. Total cost of that endeavor in today's money is a shade over $13 billion.

    The wiki article for the Predator indicates ">195" built so far, but I think that number's closer to 300 nowadays. Jane's says that, as of 30 June 2009, 220 have been delivered. Using 220 confirmed deliveries at $4.5 million yields $990 million. We've spent far, far less money on the Predators than the enormous fleet of P38s built for Word War II.

    The issue is unit cost. Each aircraft costs a lot more because we're not building as many of them. The Air Force simply isn't throwing thousands of men and machines into a given battle anymore.
    posted by backseatpilot at 8:39 AM on June 10, 2010


    backseatpilot, of course we aren't buying ten thousand Predator drones. We don't need that many. I think the point being made was that the technology is old hat, thus should be relatively inexpensive.

    It would be nice if the military's figures broke out the R&D cost as a separate line item. I can believe there'd be some tens of millions in R&D to get the Predator done. I find it hard to believe that it's a significant amount of the unit cost of a production run of 220. Unless it somehow managed to take a billion dollars worth of R&D for something that's as old hat as Predator.
    posted by wierdo at 10:45 AM on June 10, 2010


    I found a reference in the Jane's entry - $31.7 million through a DARPA contract that lasted for 30 months, and then it transferred into the first LRIP buy. As far as I can tell, the first couple LRIP contracts only constituted a handful (less than five) aircraft per buy. At such a low rate, the per-unit cost can be quite high and may still be in the process of amortizing through the Full Rate contract which began in 2003.

    So, for the first six years of production - first LRIP was in 1997 - the government's only buying a couple aircraft at a time.
    posted by backseatpilot at 11:00 AM on June 10, 2010


    Some more info here. It looks like DoD spent about $45 million in 1996 and another $6.1 million in 1997 on RDT&E (reserach, development, test, and engineering). The Navy spent almost $116 million on procurement - actual purchase of property. I think they have 3 aircraft.
    posted by backseatpilot at 11:04 AM on June 10, 2010


    I'm sure R & D cost is a big influence on the unit cost. As someone has said earlier, during LRIP the DoD is under no obligation to issue a longer contract, so lockheed or whomever has to play it safe and try and recoup as much of the initial R & D cost as they can, rather than counting on recouping it over a long time period and potentially being totally out of pocket if DoD decided not to buy past the limited run.
    Someone also made the comment earlier about electronic warfare suites and the classified specifications. I'm sure that there are some electronic warfare defence countermeasures to stop jamming and so on and automatic return to base if signal is lost and so on, but I don't believe it's terribly sophisticated given that the video feeds were unencrypted for at least two years. I suspect that the electronic warfare specs are actually the least sophisticated part of the drones, given what's avaible for anyone at the moment. There's probably some features to mask the radio profile of the drone but I imagine the longevity and the low latency video and imaging feed are the high tech and high cost features.
    There's also a good article here where the NSA director makes some well placed comments on the inherent problems about using the CIA to run the drone programme. The main issue, I think, is that they are not geared up to be a military organisation, issues of collatoral damage and how it affects on the ground support is not part of CIA culture, or at least less so than in the military. Considerations like proportionate response, reprisal risk, etc, aren't appropriate for an agency that's more concerned with finding the key players and organising their elimination.
    He touches on a good point about rules of engagment, as well, and I think there's an inherent risk when the same agency that is deciding that Mr X is a baddie is the one that is pushing the big red button, but being half way round the world and with little oversight from anyone on the ground.
    From a military perspective, UAVs have been very useful but i think the military should be the one handling it. In the past issues of tactical intel not being operated on effectively in time have been highlighted as a good reason from leaving it to the spooks but it seems to be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
    posted by Dillonlikescookies at 4:56 PM on June 12, 2010


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