Pilotless Planes Earn Their Wings in 21st-Century Warfare

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"We have struck several terrorist training camps, we've damaged most of the airfields—I believe all but one, as well as their [al Qaeda] anti-aircraft radars and launchers," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in a news briefing on Tuesday.

As pilots finish attacking the original list of targets, the next wave of attacks is expected to focus on "emerging targets"—terrorist troops and equipment on the move.

Finding and destroying emerging targets requires sensors and continuous surveillance. This is where UAVs enter the picture. These planes can hover over and spy on enemy sites for as long as a day or more on a single tank of gas. A Predator can remain airborne for 24 hours, while the more sophisticated Global Hawk can complete missions lasting up to 40 hours.

While cruising at a leisurely 84 miles an hour (155 kilometers per hour), the Predator can survey enemy territory and transmit a continuous stream of photos and video to command centers on the ground for use in planning air and ground assaults. The photos have a resolution of up to several inches—good enough to count individual people, see the color of objects such as clothing, and monitor convoys, although not capable of identifying specific individuals (such as suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden).

Predators also have a major advantage over satellites because they can fly beneath cloud cover that blinds the orbiting sensors. Predators also carry radar that enables the craft to produce pictures of enemy territory around the clock. The planes are relatively quiet and their engines burn cooler, making them difficult to detect.

Toward More Advances

Despite their fearsome name, Predators are actually somewhat vulnerable. The early models now available lack a defense system, which might be overcome in newer models. Recent U.S. tests experimented with arming Predators with missiles. The Air Force is also developing a laser guidance system specifically for the Predators.

"The next step is to design an armed unmanned vehicle specifically for combat," said Obering. But, he stressed, there is still the need for human operators to control the planes and "pull the trigger." He said, "These planes are not robots."

UAVs have been used since the Vietnam War, but once the war ended few were manufactured and the fleets of them are still quite small, Cote said.

The Air Force was initially slow to embrace them, he explained, because they were not highly critical in the Air Force's traditional strategies of attacking fixed targets. UAVs are especially advantageous in finding and tracking moving targets, which requires greater coordination with other armed services.

UAVs also threatened the Air Force culture. "The Air Force is dominated by pilots who fly in harm's way and risk their lives," said Cote.

Flying a Predator is not the same as being in the cockpit—it's a little like flying a model plane. The operator sits in front of video screens and uses a joystick, pedals, and keyboard to maneuver the plane through take-off, flight, and landing. Another person operates the sensors, such as radar or camera.

The UAVs make it possible to conduct missions that the Air Force might otherwise be reluctant to carry out.

As their advantages are increasingly recognized, UAVs are becoming a popular addition to the Air Force's aircraft fleet.

The planes have already proved their worth during military operations in the Balkans, where they were able to spot troop movements in Bosnia and Kosovo and convoys of moving tanks.

The U.S. Air Force currently has a contract with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., the Californian company that manufactures the Predators, for 77 of the planes. Obering said the Air Force also has four Global Hawks and would eventually like to add up to six Hawks a year to build the fleet to about 60.

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