Predator: First Watch
Lesson learned: never send a man to do a machine's job.
- By Linda Shiner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2001
(Page 2 of 7)
The Pentagon started test flying the Predator in the fall of 1994. Almost immediately after it first saw action the following summer over Bosnia, one was shot down by anti-aircraft artillery. But it began its deployment without the radar that enables it to gather images through the clouds that help hide it. The unlucky aircraft had descended to 4,000 feet to get beneath a cloud layer and had lingered in a valley for about an hour at the behest of commanders in Naples, Italy. Its loss was virtually inevitable. Another Predator crashed a few days later because its engine quit.
Although both aircraft were lost, no mom or spouse had to open the letter that reports a loved one missing. The Joint Project Office, which manages the program, simply sent replacements and flew them for another three months before the Pentagon pulled the Predator from the theater, added the radar and a de-icing system, and sent it back to the Balkans in May 1996, this time with the newly formed 11th Reconnaissance Squadron operating it from Tazar, Hungary.
The Predator is the airplane the Pentagon wanted during Desert Storm, when Saddam Hussein was moving Scud missile launchers from place to place and Coalition aircraft couldn't find them. Although the Navy's Pioneer UAV flew reconnaissance missions in Iraq, it couldn't cover the territory that the Predator can. A high-data-rate satellite link enables its pilot to control it up to 400 miles away. Earlier UAVs simply lacked the Predator's range and altitude capabilities.
The 11th Reconnaissance Squadron and the 15th, activated in August 1997, took turns operating the Predator: watching borders, military installations, and demonstrations, as well as escorting convoys-when Pope John Paul II toured Bosnia in 1997, a Predator overflew his route. By the time NATO launched Operation Allied Force in March 1999, theater commanders had a pretty clear idea of what the UAV could do.
"Predator was a key asset in limiting collateral damage," says Major Scott Hatfield, a Predator program manager at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. During Operation Allied Force, UAV operators would receive a list of 30 to 40 targets-munitions plants, logistics centers, military barracks-that strike aircraft were scheduled to hit that day. Pilots would fly the Predator to each site to confirm its position and make sure it was clear of civilians or orbit slowly over a target to make sure it stayed clear. Other UAVs flew reconnaissance missions, but only the Predator can watch a target all day and, with its infrared sensor and radar, all night. It has an endurance of more than 40 hours, but its longest mission in the Balkans was only half that.
One of its biggest fans during Operation Allied Force was General John Jumper, the commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe at the time and now the chief of Air Combat Command. He spoke about the Predator at a recent colloquy in Washington, D.C., held by the Air Force Association and the Eaker Foundation. "We have documented instances of Serbian special police using the very tractors that the civilians were using to go from house to house to burn and to kill," he said. Distinguishing between Serbs and civilians takes lots of loiter time, which the Predator has plenty of. "The UAV, especially the Predator, came into its own," Jumper told the gathering.
UAVs performed bomb damage assessment, located targets in hollows and other shadowy areas where satellites and high fliers couldn't see, and searched for mobile targets like missile launchers, which the Serbs also camouflaged. They flew what Department of Defense spokeswoman Susan Hansen calls " 'D3' missions: those that are dirty, dull, or dangerous."
Frequently, theater commanders asked Predator flight crews to depart from a flight plan after they launched. Not everyone was happy when this happened. Lower-level officers sometimes grumbled that their superiors, who were talking to political leaders, were micro-managing reconnaissance and chasing after spurious targets while mission planners were waiting for bomb-damage assessments.