The Blog

A New Breed of Predator

The CIA is using unmanned aircraft not just for surveillance, but for attack. A new generation of air superiority is being born before our eyes.

11:00 PM, Nov 7, 2002 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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LAST WEEKEND'S attack by an unmanned RQ-1A Predator drone on a group of six al Qaeda terrorists was the first known strike by an unmanned aerial vehicle outside Afghanistan. The strike, which killed a top al Qaeda operative who was suspected of having been a key player in the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, also heralds a new phase of Bush administration's anti-terrorism strategy.

And it is likely that as the U.S. military reconfigures itself for the war on terrorism, tools like the unmanned strike drone will be used increasingly for precision attacks against al Qaeda targets.

The RQ-1A Predator used in last weekend's attack was not originally designed to carry weapons. Built for the Air Force primarily as a surveillance platform, the Predator carries an array of sensors that help war planners see deep into the battlefield without endangering manned spy planes or launching risky reconnaissance missions with special operations commandos.

The drone can take off from a standard 5,000 foot runway and fly for up to 24 hours, controlled by an Air Force-trained pilot sitting in a portable camouflage box about the size of a shipping container. Looking into a TV monitor and flying the vehicle with a joy stick from miles away, the pilot can see a wide swath of land from as high as 25,000 feet. When the pilot sees a target--day or night--he can have the data transmitted in real-time to target planners on the ground or even to manned strike aircraft in the air.

But the prop-plane's builder, General Atomics, designed the Predator with two underwing pylons that can carry a 450-pound payload. In February 2001, the Air Force decided to see if the drone could carry and fire a missile with only slight modifications. The experiment, conducted in the southwest desert, worked, piquing the CIA's interest, which prompted the incorporation of the anti-tank Hellfire missile-equipped Predator into the Agency's covert arsenal.

Then September 11 intervened and the drone was put to work on terrorist targets.

CIA Predator pilots reportedly used the drone in Afghanistan to destroy a vehicle suspected of carrying Mullah Mohammed Omar and to kill a group of men, one of which they thought was Osama bin Laden. These strikes missed their mark. But the attack drones of the future likely won't.

Both the Navy and the Air Force are well on their way to fielding stealthy attack drones, called unmanned combat aerial vehicles, or UCAVs. These new planes will be faster, smarter and more capable than the Predator system, which was not originally designed to carry weapons. When the new UCAVs come into service, the drones could be pre-programmed for their strikes rather than flown remotely by a pilot in a trailer and strikes will be launched with one controller overseeing the operations of several drones at once.

They will be armed with several miniature GPS-guided bombs and will be able to stealthily evade radar and anti-aircraft missiles, returning to base to be re-armed and launched for another attack.

As America pursues terrorists around the globe--particularly in countries that don't want to host a large U.S. force--keep an eye out for more strikes like the one recently in Yemen. Our new silent robot stalkers from the sky are likely to play a more and more significant role as Operation Enduring Freedom moves on.

Christian Lowe is a staff writer for Army Times Publishing in Washington, D.C.