TCS Daily

A Predator That Has Become America's Best Friend

By Melana Zyla Vickers - November 30, 2001 12:00 AM

When the dust settles in Afghanistan, Washington's war pundits are sure to lionize the Predator, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that has done double duty in the war, locking onto Al Qaeda officials so they could be bombed, tracking Taliban movements, and even firing several dozen missiles at enemy targets in the country.

Too bad the Air Force won't be able to take much credit for their work.

While the service uses UAVs in a reconnaissance role, it's the Central Intelligence Agency that has moved quickly to arm the Predators, with their wingspan of about 50 feet, and to use them in combat in Afghanistan. Among other successes, a CIA Predator two weeks ago pinpointed Osama bin Laden's deputy Muhammad Atef and several others with its powerful camera. The location was then relayed to a Navy fighter, which bombed the location and killed the men.

The CIA success is likely to send the Air Force scrambling to exploit the UAV revolution that was hatched in its own offices. How can it best do that?

  • Buy More UAVs: The Air Force is reportedly planning to increase production of longer-range, higher-flying UAVs called Global Hawks to six per year from the current two per year. Whereas the Predator can loiter over a target for 24 hours and fly 400 miles to the target from its base, Global Hawks can loiter for 24 hours after flying 3,500 miles - say, the distance between Afghanistan and a West European base. Buying more Global Hawks is wise thinking.

  • Build a Stealthy, Long-Range UAV: UAVs could be improved even beyond Global Hawk levels by adding endurance and stealth, allowing the UAV to loiter virtually invisible to radar and fly from distant bases invulnerable to enemy attack. Yet just such an ambitious UAV, the Advanced Airborne Reconnaissance System, was terminated in 1992 for budget-cutting reasons. One way to correct such short-sightedness would be to ramp up experiments ongoing at the country's national laboratories for a UAV powered by a hybrid nuclear engine and capable of loitering over targets for a whopping six months.

  • Accelerate and Expand Production of a Combat UAV: The CIA's use of Predators armed with five-foot Hellfire missiles, traditionally fired from helicopters, has proven highly effective in Afghanistan. That success, coupled with successful Air Force test flights of the armed Predator last winter, should prompt the Pentagon to accelerate the experimental "Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle" program that's being run on a tiny $131 million budget and that won't produce an operational UCAV squadron until the 2010s. Other capabilities that the Air Force should give UAVs include air-to-air combat and air refuelling. And the chain of command for clearing targets that UAVs catch in their crosshairs should be streamlined permanently.

To be sure, the unmanned aircraft have had some problems. Predators crash easily: The Pentagon has bought 50 since 1994, and lost almost half to crashes or hostile fire. They're also prone to icing, break down often, and don't loiter over targets as long as expected. But with improvements in de-icing and sensors to let the pilots, who operate the UAVs with joysticks from thousands of miles away, have greater awareness of the UAVs' surroundings, such flaws are surmountable.

What's more, UAVs are cheap: At $2 million apiece, Predators are barely the price of a fighter-jet windshield. And the Mercedes of unmanned aircraft, the UCAV, promises to come in at just $10-15 million. Consider the fact that the UAVs don't put precious human pilots at risk, and they look cheaper still.

After trial runs in Iraq and Kosovo, UAVs have shown their true mettle in Afghanistan. The Pentagon budget for 2003-07, to be introduced early next year, will reveal whether the secretary of defense recognizes it's time to back these little combatants with heavy investment and creative, bold thinking about how to make the best use of them in future wars.

TCS Daily Archives