It is a Joint Forces Air Component Commander-owned theater asset for reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition in support of the Joint Force commander. The Predator can be employed in moderate risk areas, minimizing the risk to human life. Examples include areas where enemy air defenses have not been fully suppressed, open ocean environments, and biologically or chemically contaminated environments.
The RQ-1A/B Predator is a system, not just an aircraft. The fully operational system consists of four air vehicles (with sensors), a ground control station (GCS), a Predator primary satellite link communication suite and 55 people.
The Predator air vehicle and sensors are commanded and controlled by its GCS via a C-band line-of-sight data link or a Ku-band satellite data link for beyond-line-of-sight operations. During flight operations the crew in the GCS is an air vehicle operator and three sensor operators. The aircraft is equipped with a color nose camera (generally used by the air vehicle operator for flight control), a day variable aperture TV camera, a variable aperture infrared camera (for low light/night) and a synthetic aperture radar for looking through smoke, clouds or haze. The cameras produce full motion video and the synthetic aperture radar produces still frame radar images. On the RQ-1B, either the daylight variable aperture or the infrared electro-optical sensor may be operated simultaneously with the synthetic aperture radar.
Each Predator air vehicle can be disassembled into six main components and loaded into a container nicknamed "the coffin." This enables all system components and support equipment to be rapidly deployed worldwide. The largest component is the GCS and it is designed to roll into a C-130 Hercules. The Predator primary satellite link consists of a 6.1-meter (20-foot) satellite dish and associated support equipment. The satellite link provides communications between the ground station and the aircraft when it is beyond line-of-sight and is a link to networks that disseminate secondary intelligence. The RQ-1A system needs 1,500 by 40 meters (5,000 by 125 feet) of hard surface runway with clear line-of-sight to each end from the GCS to the air vehicles. All components must be collocated on the same airfield.
The improvements in the RQ-1B include an ARC-210 radio, an APX-100 IFF/SIF with mode 4, an ice mitigation system, up-graded, turbo-charged engine, and validated technical orders for operations and maintenance. A number of Predators have quick-reaction laser designators so they can act as airborne forward air controllers for allied tactical aircraft. Following a series of tests in 2001, some of those Predators have been armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles guided by those laser designators. On February 7, 2002, an armed Predator attacked a convoy of sport utility vehicles, killing a suspected al Qaeda leader. The intelligence community initially expressed doubt that he was Osama bin Laden.
The "R" is the Department of Defense designation for reconnaissance; "Q" means unmanned aircraft system. The "1" describes it as being the first of a series of purpose-built unmanned reconnaissance aircraft systems. The "A" says it is the pre-production version of the RQ-1 system series while the "B" denotes the baseline production configuration. See also RQ-2 Pioneer, RQ-3 Dark Star, RQ-4 Global Hawk, RQ-5 Hunter, RQ-6 Outrider, and RQ-7 Shadow.
The Predator system was designed in response to a United States Department of Defense requirement to provide persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information to the warfighter. It was the first successful advanced concept technology demonstration to transition to production and fielding. This is a new acquisition process designed to reduce costs and development time by relying on commercial off-the-shelf technology to the maximum extent possible. In April 1996, the United States Secretary of Defense selected the United States Air Force as the operating service for the RQ-1A Predator system. The 11th and 15th reconnaissance squadrons, Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field, Nevada, currently operate the RQ-1A/B.