Pilotless Planes Earn Their Wings in 21st-Century Warfare

Bijal P. Trivedi
for National Geographic Today
October 12, 2001
The awkward-looking Predator, with a toucan-like nose and huge wings, is one of a growing fleet of pilotless, remotely controlled planes that are becoming increasingly indispensable in modern warfare.

The Predator measures about 27 feet (8 meters) and seven feet high (2 meters) and weighs just under a ton. Along with other Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), it is playing a critical role in spying and battle assessment.

Pictures showing the pre-and post-attack aerial shots of the Garmabak Ghar terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, for example, were undoubtedly taken by a Predator, or possibly another more sophisticated UAV, such as a Gnat or Global Hawk, said Owen Cote, associate director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Security Studies Program.

The most significant advantage of pilotless spy planes is that they do not put pilots at risk during spying missions. But the planes are also relatively inexpensive, which means the loss would be less costly if they were shot down. (A Predator costs about U.S. $3 million, compared with as much as $2 billion for a single B-2 bomber or $25 million for an F-16 fighter.)

Besides the obvious advantage of no loss of life, "no one really cares if they go down because, compared to other planes that run into the hundreds of millions, these are cheap," said Cote.

Of the 55 Predators that have been delivered to the U.S. Air Force, 19 have been lost—11 during combat.

Another benefit is that Predators and other UAVs can remain airborne at high altitudes and for durations that would not be possible with piloted planes. "These planes don't need food and they don't need rest, which means they can collect more information," said Brig. Gen. Trey Obering at the Pentagon, who oversees all surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence gathering for the Air Force.

A Global Hawk can travel five times the distance from New York to Los Angeles without stopping. The long range, high-endurance craft could travel to battle scenes in risky territory, complete the mission, and return without a break.

"You also get more bang for your buck," said Obering, because a pilot doesn't have to be trained to fly each one of the planes. Military officials expect that it will eventually be possible for a single operator to simultaneously control three or four of the planes, he added.

New Strategies

The increased emphasis on the use of UAVs stems from a change in warfare strategies. Before the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force focused primarily on striking strategic fixed targets such as airstrips, military bases, factories, and bridges.

"In fact we got so good at hitting fixed targets that it has become almost routine," Cote said. Within the first two days of air strikes in Afghanistan, the Air Force had successfully destroyed or damaged 85 percent of 31 targets, according to official reports. (Click here for details.)

"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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