Predator: First Watch

Lesson learned: never send a man to do a machine’s job.

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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.

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.

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