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The Predator Weapons System

March 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Reporter: Air force personnel have been working overtime these past few weeks practicing remote control flying of the Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. Their mission: To pinpoint targets like this Scud missile launcher obtained by the U.S. As American forces go to war, Predators likely will scour the Iraqi landscape for scud launchers the U.S. believes Saddam Hussein has hidden. During 1991 Gulf War, Iraq fired 40 Scuds at Israel, killing one person. But a scud attack on a U.S. barracks in Saudi Arabia killed 28 American soldiers. The attacks succeeded despite a major military effort to find and destroy Scud launchers.

U.S. officials hope the Predator can do better. Predators got lots of attention for helping hunt down the Taliban during the war in Afghanistan and even searched for Osama bin Laden. They’ve been used elsewhere in the war on terrorism. Most famously, a Predator fired the missile over Yemen last November that killed Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, the al-Qaeda leader believed responsible for the terror attack on the U.S.S. “Cole” in 2000. In preparation for a war with Iraq, Predators recently were packed into shipping containers, for transport to the Persian Gulf region. Retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner is a consultant to the Defense Department.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: There will be the battle of the western desert, in which the United States is searching for scud missiles. One can envision the Predator having a major role in that where their job is to keep a 24- hour watch for Scud transporters.

KWAME HOLMAN: Designed originally as a surveillance aircraft, Predators were upgraded to carry hellfire missiles capable of hitting targets three to five miles away. General John Jumper is the air force’s chief of staff.

GEN. JOHN JUMPER: We’ve seen it in Afghanistan, we’ve seen it used around the world. We’ve seen it its ability starting as far back as Kosovo to actually be able to find targets, and with its built-in laser designation capability be able to point those targets out to other people, people who are flying airplanes or others.

KWAME HOLMAN: During this war in Iraq, Predator also could pinpoint Iraqi forces.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Predator will provide real-time reconnaissance as units are moving north to identify targets, to keep track of movements of Iraqi forces.

KWAME HOLMAN: Development of the Predator began in 1994. The Predator cruises at 90 miles per hour and normally operates at ten to fifteen thousand feet. The 27-foot long unmanned plane carries sophisticated cameras that can function day or night. Electronic images are transmitted to another aircraft or to an operator at a ground control station thousands of miles away, and can be retransmitted anywhere in the world.

COL. TOM EHRHARD: The Predator is a revolutionary system in that it can be controlled over the horizon.

KWAME HOLMAN: Colonel Tom Ehrhard has written extensively about unmanned aerial vehicles. He says, before the Predator, unmanned planes were limited to a 250-mile range, the line of sight from a ground control station. The front hump on the Predator contains a dish that receives constant guidance via satellite.

CIOL. TOM EHRHARD: But with the Predator, because it is controlled beyond the horizon, you now have thousands of miles of coverage that you can get and in difficult terrain over the other side of the mountain and et cetera, et cetera, you can do this, because the Predator can be controlled by a satellite.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Predator’s slow speed, efficient wing, light weight and ample fuel storage allows it to stay in the air for up to an entire day, far longer than past systems. Predators generally take off and land a few hours flying time from their target areas.

PHILIP COYLE: It definitely represents a new capability, a capability the U.S. Military hasn’t had before. But it still is under development. There’s still more work that needs to be done.

KWAME HOLMAN: Philip Coyle, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester during the Clinton administration, says the Predator’s ability to target individuals has a mixed track record.

PHILIP COYLE: There have been four situations now where hellfire missiles have been fired from Predators. There probably have been many more than that, but we know from the press of four. The first three of those were not successful. The rescue attempt one was attempt to kill Osama bin Laden, turned out it was scavengers, scrap pickers, not Osama bin Laden. So it killed some people but the wrong people.

KWAME HOLMAN: Coyle also says the air force cannot yet control enough Predators simultaneously to provide 24-hour, seven-day-a week coverage of an area. And Coyle says the Predator’s satellite communications system has been erratic, and that it can’t fly in bad weather. Although 80 Predators have been delivered to the military, 27 have either crashed due to malfunctions and operator error or been shot down during operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. Gen. John Jumper, the air force chief of staff says the Predator still is in development, and because it’s been used so frequently there hasn’t been time to work out all the bugs. How the Predator performs in the war in Iraq remains to be seen but there is no debate that the unmanned aerial weapons will be relied on to help U.S. forces on the ground and in the air.