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Drone Losses Debate

by christian on February 9, 2010

I got an interesting response on my post last week about the Air Force’s 2010 OCO request for $216 million to buy 12 MQ-9 Reaper drones.

Air Force officials say the money is needed to replace lost or damaged Reapers from combat operations.

In my post, I noted that at least the intention was demonstrated in the request that the USAF would rather lose almost a squadron of MQ-9s in combat rather than one F-15 and its crew.

Well, my good friend and longtime Pentagon budget watchdog Winslow Wheeler pinged me with this rejoinder:

I think you are missing an important point in your comment about the 12 drone losses replacing aircraft/pilot losses.  I strongly suspect drone accident rates per 1,000 flying hours are well above, multiples, of aircraft accident loss rates per 1,000 hours. As for hostile losses, drones are so ridiculously easy for any modern (I.e. non-Taliban) air defense to deal with that I suspect, if ever we meet same, they will be quickly attrited.  Are there any drone losses to hostile fire in Afghanistan?  If there is any such number, it compares to zero (I believe) for aircraft.  Wheeler out.

 Well, I did a little research on the first argument, and here’s what I found. Wheeler has a point in that the lifetime Class A ($1 million in damage or death) mishap rate for the Predator/Reaper — as of December 2009 — was “multiples” above that of, say, the F-15 fleet. It takes a little finessing, but combining the lifetime totals of flight hours for the RQ-1 Predator (which begins in 1997) and the MQ-9 Reaper (which starts in 2004), we get a Class A mishap rate of 10.2 per 1,000 flight hours. [CLARIFICATION: The services’ safety centers canlculate mishap “rates” per 100,000 flight hours, typically. But I made my calculations based on Winslow’s 1,000 hour benchmark. Running the numbers, the Predator/Reaper official mishap rate would be 9.7 per 100K flight hours — still very high] The Air Force says it lost a total of 57 Predators since 1997 and seven Reapers. Both aircraft have flown a total of nearly 655,000 flight hours.

Looking at the F-15 rate, USAF stats show over the lifetime (since 1972), the F-15 platform has a Class A mishap rate of 2.42, with 140 aircraft damaged. It’s lifetime destroyed rate is 2.04 with 118 aircraft lost — and that’s over a lifetime total of almost 6 million flight hours. But the stat that 43 pilots have died behind the stick of an F-15 and two of those were killed in fiscal 2009, speaks volumes to the family and loved ones of the fallen. Despite the high mishap rate of the MQ-9, no pilots are dead because of it.

But, yes, the Predator/Reaper mishap rate is more than five times that of the F-15. 

Now on the shoot down issue, I just can’t weigh in. I’ll look into how many of those purported losses in 2009 were from shoot downs or malfunctions. But I don’t think it’s “ridiculously easy” to shoot down a Predator/Reaper. Small target, very high and relatively quiet when they’re up there…But I just don’t have any info on that yet.

I’ll post Winslow’s response when I get it.

– Christian

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