Predator: First Watch
Lesson learned: never send a man to do a machine's job.
- By Linda Shiner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2001
(Page 3 of 7)
Although real-time video (purists say "near real time," since there's about a half-second delay in the network) was a powerful tool, the Pentagon's daily press briefings during Operation Allied Force provided a glimpse of the frustration that must have been felt by people who were watching-live-a bully in action but couldn't always do much to stop him. At one briefing Lieutenant General Charles F. "Chuck" Wald, at the time Joint Staff Vice Director for Strategic Plans and Policy, was showing a Predator video (UAVs supplied many of the videos used in briefings) in which a tank drives over a civilian car and crushes it. A house is afire across the street, but there is no apparent fighting going on in the area. Wald, angered by the images, told the assembled media, "I'm not sure how most people would interpret this, but this is about as unprofessional as anything I've ever seen a military force do.... If I was in that military I'd probably-definitely-quit."
Imagery delivered by the Predator could have an unexpectedly strong influence on target selection. When an act of savagery is seen in real time, the impulse to strike back is nearly overwhelming. After seeing the video, reporters asked whether the tank had been taken out. Wald said that a tank in the area had been destroyed, but he couldn't be sure it was the same one. He'd been expecting the question.
The process for getting the location of a target from the Predator to a strike aircraft is not as efficient as it could be, as the Air Force has recognized in studies of its own performance during Allied Force. Officers in the Vicenza, Italy operations center read from the video the latitude and longitude of the location where the Predator was looking. They then radioed an Airborne Command and Control aircraft, which passed the coordinates on to strike aircraft. In certain instances the commander skipped the intermediary and talked directly to the strike aircraft. The whole process, from spotting to striking, took about 10 minutes, says Wald. But the time was dependent on whether strike aircraft were available.
The plan for the future is to have imagery from UAVs, satellites, and other reconnaissance systems all stitched together to create what Air Force planners dreamily call "a seamless intelligence picture" beamed simultaneously to command center, command and control aircraft, and ground attack aircraft. Officers in the Air Force Aerospace Command, Control, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Center at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, believe they'll see such a seamless picture within a few years.
The Predator is a funny-looking little airplane, only 27 feet long with what looks like an oversize head but in reality is a compartment for the Ku-band satellite dish, which receives instructions from a pilot and sends imagery back. It has a glider's high-aspect-
ratio wings. Big, slab-like tailplanes splayed downward complete the look of a hydrocephalic insect, especially when its spindly landing gear lowers for approach.
"This is the hardest thing I've ever had to fly," says Captain Craig Babbitt, a 29-year-old pilot who had been flying C-130s before signing up for a two-year tour with the Predator. "You're looking at numbers. [Even when flying on instruments] in an airplane, you have all your senses. Only one person has said he's done something harder, and that's a carrier landing."
The pilot in the ground control station flies the Predator as he would a conventional aircraft-with a stick in his right hand and throttle in his left-only instead of looking through a windshield, he's watching the 30-degree field of view from the aircraft's nose camera. One pilot compares the sensation to "driving your car with paper towel tubes over your eyes."