Predator: First Watch
Lesson learned: never send a man to do a machine's job.
- By Linda Shiner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2001
(Page 7 of 7)
Eleven U.S. UAVs were lost to anti-aircraft fire and accidents during Operation Allied Force-21, including those flown by other NATO members-"and the pilots were last seen heading for the mess hall," as Gibbs blithely puts it. Endurance, flexibility, keen eyesight-good qualities all, but the biggest attraction in a UAV is the "U." No pilot is placed in harm's way, and the American people have made it clear that they like it like that. Casualties are unacceptable, and UAVs permit a whole new world of decision-making.
Tom Reagan, who flew B-52s before he flew Predators, could have been describing either mission when he told me, "We're going to fly at whatever altitude is necessary to avoid threats and get the job done." But only a UAV pilot could say, as he did: "Or it may come to a point where they don't want us to avoid threats, and that's the bonus with a UAV. If there's something that is time critical and they want pictures of something now because it will save lives, then we'll fly right into a threat. And so what if they shoot us down? No one gets hurt and we may find out some invaluable information."
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.