The role of unmanned aircraft systems in the Army is growing at unprecedented rates. Rapid advances in technology are enabling more and more UAS capability to be deployed on the battlefield. As the Program Executive Office for Aviation’s Unmanned Aircraft System Project Office designs, develops and delivers the next generation UAS to the Soldier, it will more than likely build on the legacy created by the MQ-5B Hunter, the first and longest serving Army UAS.
When the Hunter was initially fielded in 1995 the UAS became a game changer on battlefield. The system carried a wide array of onboard payloads used to survey enemy elements and transmit to ground-based or airborne battle management systems which was essential to field commanders.
“The Hunter provided commanders with near-real time intelligence, reconnaissance, target acquisition, target identification and battle damage assessment capabilities,” Bill Smithson, a senior logistics specialist who has worked on the Hunter program since its inception, said. “The Hunter also enhanced the commander’s ability to identify and track hostile activity and targets, and identify friendly forces to avoid unnecessary loss of life.”
Described as the workhorse for unmanned aerial vehicles during its more than 30-year tenure, the UAS provided operational support to the force with more than 225,000 flight hours, of which over 80% supported combat operations.
It also paved the way for other unmanned aircraft to be developed and fielded. The Hunter’s capabilities set the standard for the Army’s unmanned aircraft systems program, achieving several operational and technological firsts.
In 1999 the Hunter became the first UAS to be deployed overseas when it was used to support contingency operations in the skies over Kosovo. It was also the first UAS to cross the border into Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Converting to a weaponized configuration in January 2006, the Hunter became the Army’s newest UAS propelled by a heavy fuel engine and equipped with the latest in avionics. It was also one of the first UAV’s to incorporate Automatic Take Off and Landing technology for a fully autonomous flight including pre-programmed way points.
Even with all its success the Hunter never reached full rate production as a program, and on Dec. 16, 2015, the Hunter flew its final flight in Army service at Fort Hood, Texas. As the Army transitioned to the larger and more capable MQ-1C Gray Eagle, the Hunter transferred to government-owned, contractor-operated units and continued supporting overseas operations another four years. On Dec. 16, 2019, the Army directed its first and oldest UAS be returned to the U.S. and divested from the inventory. The Hunter UAS flew its final training flight at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, in March 2020.
“The men and women who worked on this program put their hearts and souls into seeing the overwhelming success that has spanned over three decades,” Smithson said. “Although the program started on a shaky foundation, it grew and thrived as the first set of unmanned ‘Eyes Beyond the Horizon’ for the Army and our allies.”
While no longer part of the active UAS fleet, today the Hunter can be found on displays like the one mounted on a platform just outside the Sparkman Center, and mounted on the latest display recently erected outside PEO Aviation headquarters. According to Smithson, the Endurance UAS Product Office’s Non-Program of Record Product Team is in communication with other organizations that may be interested in the possibility of obtaining a Hunter UAS for future displays.
The Hunter’s real contributions were on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, where its reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting and acquisition capabilities quickly won over Soldiers and commanders. But the lessons learned and advancements achieved during its more than 30 year lifecycle years will undoubtedly provide untold benefits for Army UAS program for years to come.