In the video several dark cars and a beige van have stopped on the side of a road, and five people are walking up to the first car, perhaps to check directions with its driver. Why else would they have stopped in the middle of nowhere? Because this video is being shot from an aircraft flying at maybe 10,000 feet, I'm surprised at how well I can see these people: I can make out four men, two with jackets, and a woman in a dress. It's as though I'm looking down from the rooftop of a building.
It's spellbinding to watch people who don't know they're being observed, and I want to keep watching, but the camera, part of the instrument payload on an RQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, moves on. The UAV is flying a routine mission from Tuzla, Bosnia, launched by the U.S. Air Force 15th Reconnaissance Squadron. This little caravan is obviously not what the Predator's masters are looking for.
"It's very rare that we even see people," says Senior Airman Heather Hunnel, 23, a sensor operator who directs the Predator's cameras and radar. "Mostly we see houses. Lots of houses. With no roofs."
We are inside the Predator's ground control station, a 30- by eight-foot structure very much like a semi-trailer. Hunnel and two colleagues have recently canceled the day's mission because of thunderstorms. The Predator has already returned to Eagle Base, a U.S. Army installation in Tuzla, and we're watching some video it recorded earlier. The same images were sent in real time by satellite and transoceanic cable to the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System node at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. From there they were relayed to 34 U.S. and allied command centers-like it says, worldwide.
What the Predator was looking for that day (or any day) is classified, but to put it simply, the airplane looks for trouble. The 15th Reconnaissance Squadron was in Bosnia to support SFOR, a "stabilization force" of 20,000 NATO troops sent there to serve as a buffer between the Muslims and Serbs who waged war for three and a half years. They also support KFOR, a similar force protecting civilians in Kosovo, 1.5 million of whom were driven from their homes by Federal Republic of Yugoslavia forces. It's up to SFOR and KFOR to see that all sides observe the cease-fire agreements. And the Predator has been one of their best ways to see.
The $3.2 million craft carries 450 pounds of imaging sensors: a fixed video camera in its nose so its pilots can see where it's going, and two daylight TV cameras, one with a 955-mm zoom lens, in a stabilized gimbal under its chin that steadies the lenses. It also carries an infrared camera with three telephoto lenses plus a synthetic aperture radar, which can penetrate clouds and spot vehicles hidden under trees; the return from metal is different from that of leaves. The radar builds a cumulative topographical map of the ground that looks like a grainy black-and-white photograph.
Because the Predator is small, white, and almost invisible in the sky, people don't realize they're being watched. Its 80-horsepower four-stroke Rotax 912 engine is virtually silent at altitude but as annoying as a chainsaw on the ground. Early models powered snowmobiles and jet skis, but later versions are FAA-approved for aircraft. The aircraft can be picked up on radar, but most search radar systems filter out low-speed targets so that they don't pick out birds or objects that don't pose threats. The Predator can fly at around 70 mph, slow enough to hide from such radars.
In the video, a wisp of cloud drifts past the camera's lens, and roads, haystacks, and villages slide by below. It looks like rural Vermont except for the busted-up houses.
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.