So why stop at reconnaissance craft? In tests at the bombing ranges near Nellis, the Predator has already fired 100-pound AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank missiles. The tests had been delayed to give Pentagon lawyers time to review the requirements of the 1988 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which prohibits the deployment of unmanned weapons platforms with a range equal to the Predator's.
Regardless of whether the Predator will be among them, unmanned attack craft are on the way. This summer Boeing will begin flight tests of an unmanned combat air vehicle it is developing under a $131 million contract from the Air Force and the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. And Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works is developing a similar craft in a classified U.S. Air Force program-this one small enough to be air-launched by a mothership.
Meanwhile the 11th and 15th Reconnaissance squadrons continue to operate the Predator and learn how to use it. Members of the 15th have been deployed to Saudi Arabia to patrol southern Iraq, and both squadrons have flown in Red Flag, the combat training war games at Nellis. "We're still trying to figure out how we fit in," says the 11th's Dave Gibbs. "We've already proven ourselves," says Steve Ricci. "We've done that for five years. But how do we want to use this system? What do they want it to do?"
Like a trainer toweling off a boxer between rounds, Senior Airman Brian Cruickshank is wiping down a Predator that has just returned from a mission. He and the other maintainers in the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron say that "the robot," as some call it, is a lot easier to work on than some of the other aircraft they've kept flying. "This is almost all electrical work," says Cruikshank. "Swapping out black boxes."
When you talk to crew chiefs about their aircraft, it's not uncommon for them to lean up against it, slap its side, or run their hands along a wing. Nobody touches the Predator. Nobody has a story to tell about it. They all know what it does, how it works, that it's here to stay. But its place in air force culture is tentative; its mission not yet fully defined.