Eric Schmitt / New York Times – 2005-04-07 23:20:13
ELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (March 30. 2005) — In the skies over Iraq, the number of remotely piloted aircraft — increasingly crucial tools in tracking insurgents, foiling roadside bombings, protecting convoys and launching missile attacks — has shot up to more than 700 now from just a handful four years ago, military officials say.
As the American military continues to shift its emphasis to counterinsurgency and antiterrorism missions, the aircraft are in such demand that the Pentagon is poised to spend more than $13 billion on them through the end of the decade.
The aircraft are being put into service so quickly that the various military and intelligence branches are struggling to keep pace with the increased number of operators required and with the lack of common policy and strategy on how to use them.
Ravens, Hawks and Predators
There are nearly a dozen varieties in service now, from the 4.5-pound Ravens that patrol 100 feet off the ground to the giant Global Hawks that can soar at 60,000 feet and take on sophisticated reconnaissance missions. And while much of the appeal of the aircraft is that they keep aircrews out of the line of fire, there are now so many of them buzzing around combat zones that, in fact, the airspace can get dangerously crowded.
In November, for example, a tiny Army Raven surveillance aircraft plowed into a Kiowa scout helicopter, causing no injuries or serious damage, but raising safety concerns.
Army officials insist that it was an isolated case, and cite tighter flight procedures and the addition of strobe lights to smaller aircraft since then. But other military officials have noted several near misses.
“What it shows is we’ve got to make sure the lack of control of the airspace and the separation of these things doesn’t contribute to disasters of these things hitting one another,” Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, said about the November accident in an interview.
The Wave of the Future
Never before has the American military used so many remotely piloted aircraft in such diverse missions, and many officers call them the wave of the future.
At a command hub spread among a half dozen dimly lit trailers at this air base just off the Las Vegas Strip, the future is now. Small teams of remote-control warriors nudge joysticks to fly armed Predator aircraft 7,500 miles away. Once the Predators take off in Iraq or Afghanistan for missions, the air crews here take over.
The Predator, which can carry Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, is the best-known of the remotely piloted fleet. It is an ungainly, propeller-driven craft that flies as slowly as 80 miles per hour, and can loiter continuously for 24 hours or more at 10,000 to 15,000 feet above the battlefield.
In each trailer, a pilot and co-pilot , who operate the Predator’s zoom lens, radar and infrared sensors, sit side-by-side before an array of consoles and computer screens that let them see what the Predator sees while they talk to troops on the ground by radio or e-mail. Soldiers and ground spotters can receive live video images from the Predator on specially equipped laptop computers.
“I can watch the rear of a building for a bad guy escaping when troops go in the front, and flash an infrared beam on the guy that our troops can see with their night-vision goggles,” said Maj. John Erickson, 33, an F-16 fighter pilot who has spent 18 months in a stationary cockpit here.
Commanders say the aircraft have played a pivotal role recently by attacking insurgent mortar positions and warning convoys of suspicious roadblocks that could be ambushes. To bury roadside bombs, insurgents often douse the street with gasoline, ignite it, and dig up the heat-softened asphalt to lay the explosive. The Predator heat sensors detect the hot strips, and warn nearby troops, military officials said.
The CIA’s Weapon of Choice
Predators are also a weapon of choice for the Central Intelligence Agency. Hellfire missiles launched from a Predator three years ago destroyed a car in Yemen, killing an operative of Al Qaeda and five other occupants inside.
Last August, the United States secretly deployed a new version, a bigger, faster and more heavily armed model called Predator B, for the C.I.A. to use in the Middle East, administration officials said.
With every commander clamoring for a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield, the 24-hour operations are putting strains on the aircraft and their operators. In just the past week, two $5 million Predators crashed near their base north of Baghdad, bringing to 25 the number that have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan to storms, pilot error, enemy fire or mechanical failure since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Air Force said.
The Air Force is steadily training new Predator pilots and sensor operators at a desert base 45 miles northwest of here. But Maj. Gen. Stephen M. Goldfein, the air warfare center commander here, said he has only about half the Predator pilots he needs, and he worries about the stresses that the eight-hour-a-day, six-day-a week job puts on them.
Moreover, the Air Force announced last month that it was adding 15 new Predator squadrons to the three existing ones.
Attack of the Drones
In Washington, a fierce competition has erupted among the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force over which will take the lead in coordinating the military’s policy and strategy involving unmanned aircraft. The Joint Chiefs of Staff met twice in the last week to discuss these sensitive decisions and to underscore the need to set aside rivalries and streamline the flow of information to troops.
A new report by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, warns that planning in the Defense Department has failed to keep pace with the rapid development and fielding of remotely piloted aircraft.
“DOD still lacks a viable strategic plan and oversight body to guide UAV development efforts and related investment decisions,” said the report, issued on March 9. It said a Pentagon task force created to address these issues has limited authority and no enforcement power over programs.
Between 750 and 800 remotely piloted aircraft are operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a vast majority in Iraq, two military officials said. About two dozen of the Air Force’s 58 Predators are flying in the two countries, officials said. In the battle of Falluja and surrounding areas last November, Predators fired about 40 Hellfire missiles. One Global Hawk operates in the Persian Gulf region.
In addition to these aircraft, the Marine Corps is flying 100 aerial vehicles in Iraq, including Pioneers and Dragon Eyes.
The Army is flying hundreds of Ravens, as well as larger Shadow, Hunter and I-Gnat aircraft. “We’re flying the wings off it,” Lt. Col. Stephen K. Iwicki, a senior Army intelligence officer, said of the Hunter, which will soon be armed with a small, laster-guided explosive called viper strike.
While some pilots in Iraq express concern over sharing airspace with the remotely piloted aircraft, they are proving popular with ground troops.
Sgt. Rowe Stayton, who just finished a stint as an infantry fire-team leader in northern Baghdad, is a booster for the Raven, in particular. He recalled one incident where the aircraft tracked some suspected insurgents after they had dug up something and put it into a vehicle. Troops later seized the vehicle and found it full of mortar tubes and rounds.
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