TCS Daily

Predator or Prey?

By Noah Shachtman - January 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Predator drones are the high-tech darlings of the new war. Too bad they're so slow, dumb, noisy, and near-sighted that almost anything stronger than a peashooter could take them down.

In recent months, the bulbous-nosed, 27 foot-long unmanned aerial vehicles (or "UAVs") have spied on Saddam, taken out terrorists in Yemen, and become the fancy-pants weapon that demonstrates American dominance on the battlefield. Now, the U.S. government is considering using the drones to patrol our borders and monitor our shores.

But, like the first Gulf War's Patriot missile, the Predator isn't all its cracked up to be. Nearly half of the military's 60-or-so plane Predator fleet has crashed or been taken out. On Wednesday, the Iraqis claimed to have destroyed their second American drone in a month. Two more have gone down in Pakistan since the start of the New Year.

Except for a helicopter, "the Predator is the most vulnerable aircraft that the U.S. currently sends into a combat zone," said John Pike, director of

Why have so many Predators bitten the dust? To start with, the UAVs are molasses slow, flying between 80 to 100 miles per hour; an F-16 or F-18 fighter plane, in contrast, goes about 1,500 miles per hour. The planes are propeller-driven, so they're noisy. And they fly flow - around 10,000 feet. That means they travel through rough weather, instead of floating above it, like most planes. And that puts the UAVs well within range of a shoulder-fired Stinger missile.

When operating on their own, through pre-programmed instructions, the drones "are, for lack of a better term, dumb," said Naval War College professor William Martel. And when pilots remotely guide the planes from the ground, it's only with great difficulty, according to James Massey, editor of Unmanned Vehicles magazine.

What makes Predator piloting particularly hard is the UAV's limited vision. Equipped with traditional video and infrared cameras, as well as synthetic aperture radar, the drone is supposed to give a clear view of what's on the ground.

But Thomas Christie, director of the Pentagon's Office of Testing and Evaluation, said in a 2001 report that "the Predator's infrared camera could detect [vehicles], but could [distinguish between wheeled and tracked vehicles] only 21 percent of the time and recognize [the vehicle's model and country of origin] only 5 percent of the time."

This near-sightedness has proven to be deadly, at times. The Washington Postreports that on February 3, 2002, a CIA-operated Predator spied two men in an eastern Afghanistan mountain village, acting deferential to a third man who was extremely tall - tall enough, perhaps, to be Osama bin Laden. The Predator was ordered to fire on the men. And it did, killing all three. But these men weren't Al Qaeda operatives. They were peasants, gathering scrap metal.

Despite this, Gloria Cales, a Pentagon spokesperson, said, "We are still pressing ahead with the Predator."

What's more, she noted that while only a few of the drones are currently armed, every new Predator will have the ability to be carry weapons.

U.S. military planners have carved out a key role for the UAV if we go back to war in the Persian Gulf: finding Iraq's mobile Scud missile launchers. But given the drone's recent track record, it's questionable whether the Predator will be any better at stopping Scuds in 2003 than the vaunted Patriot missile defense program was in 1991.

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