A growing confidence in unmanned aircraft technology may result
in additional deployments of U.S. military drones to Afghanistan
and other parts of the world in the near future.
But taking advantage of this technology is easier said than done,
given that unmanned flight technologies are in various stages of
development and have yet to reach technological maturity for combat
use, said experts.
The UAV industry “is by no means a mature industry, “
said Daryl Davidson, the executive director of the Association for
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles International, based in Arlington, Va.
“We are still in the mode of gaining very valuable operational
situations. The more information we gather in a hostile environment
as it would be now [Afghanistan], the more we can improve the current
The Air Force’s Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) has
gained notoriety in recent weeks for its role in U.S. operations
against the Taliban militias in Afghanistan. But even the Pentagon
acknowledged that the system still has problems that need to be
A report released in late October by the Pentagon’s office
of operational testing and evaluation (DOT&E) said that the
Predator is not “operationally effective or suitable.”
According to DOT&E Director Thomas Christie, “this judgment
rests primarily on an operational assessment against the user’s
standards for effectiveness and suitability.”
Predator began as a technology demonstration in 1994. The prime
contractor is General Atomics, of San Diego, Calif. It was deployed
to the Balkans in 1996. Since that time, Predator has been sent
to Europe and also supported operations in Southwest Asia. During
Operation Allied Force, over Kosovo, Predator flew more than 50
sorties in support of targeting operations.
Predator is a long-endurance system that can fly 400 nautical miles,
loiter for about 14 hours, and then fly back 400 nautical miles.
It operates usually at about 15,000 feet, although it can fly as
high as 25,000 feet. The payload is roughly 450 pounds. A pilot
with a stick controls the aircraft.
The UAV carries electro-optical and infrared video cameras, as
well as a synthetic-aperture radar. “This aircraft is known
for its video,” said an Air Force official. “It’s
become the commander’s real-time eye in the sky, providing
real-time streaming video back to the command post.”
The Air Force has stood up two Predator squadrons at Indian Springs
Auxiliary Airfield, in Nevada.
Each Predator system consists of four air vehicles, the ground-control
stations and satellite links. Air Force has ordered 12 systems,
the last two of which were being delivered by late 2001.
To date, the Air Force has received 60 air vehicles and lost 20
due to mishaps, weather conditions, or losses over enemy territory.
Christie’s report noted that the Predator has poor target
location accuracy and often communicates poorly. Rain has a detrimental
effect on “strike support, combat search and rescue, area
search and continuous coverage,” the report said.
DOT&E officials pointed out the Predator’s original program
requirement is to operate for 30 days, providing around-the-clock
reconnaissance support to commanders, including operations “under
adverse weather conditions, in areas where enemy defenses have not
been adequately suppressed, open ocean and contaminated environments.”
The Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center (AFOTEC) gave
Predator a more favorable review. If found the system to be effective,
but not without “limitations and difficulties and suitable,
though reliability and maintainability problems persist.”
A DOT&E spokesperson said the office was unable to provide
information about the testing criteria on which the report was based.
A senior Air Force official who briefed reporters on background
explained that Predator was designed and built outside the normal
acquisition procedures, as an experiment. That experiment turned
out a system that the Air Force wanted for combat use.
Since the experimental development began in 1994, he said, “We’ve
upgraded engines, we’ve upgraded sensors, we’ve done
a lot of work.” He claimed that many of the problems cited
by DOT&E have been fixed. “I think Predator proved its
case in Kosovo, and I think if you spoke to the [regional commanders],
they [would tell you that they] thought it was a useful capability.”
One improvement being sought is digital imagery, which will replace
analog data, said the official. The technology, he said, will make
it easier to pinpoint targets on the ground.
An Air Force spokeswoman, who was interviewed under condition of
anonymity, said that the “Air Force likes the Predator.”
Although it was never declared operational, it is being used as
an operational system, because it works, she said. The Air Force
is working on a formal response to Christie’s report and to
“You can only expect [Predator] to function within certain
parameters,” said Larry Dickerson, senior analyst at Forecast
International, a business intelligence firm. Even though the system
has bugs, he said, the Air Force has few other options. “Otherwise,
you won’t have the capability at all.”
Davidson attributed some of the problems to the fact that UAVs
get relatively little funding, compared to manned aircraft programs.
But Pentagon expenditures on UAV programs are not insignificant,
and are growing. The Defense Department invested more than $3 billion
in UAV development, procurement and operations during the past five
years. It plans to invest $2.3 billion more by 2005, and is likely
to spend $4.2 billion by 2010. According to the so-called UAV Roadmap,
by 2010, the UAV inventory of all the military services is expected
to grow to 290 vehicles.
Dickerson questioned whether the current focus on UAVs will be
maintained, once they are out of the spotlight. “Right now,
they [UAVs] are getting attention, but if they will after this conflict
that is questionable.” After Desert Storm, for example, the
Pentagon realized it needed more reconnaissance systems. “That
was 10 years ago, and they are still not doing anything about it,”
he said. “The F-22, the Joint Strike Fighter, those are the
top of the list—UAVs are only the bottom of the system. We
are very unfamiliar with UAV operation.”
In his opinion, the DOT&E report is stating the obvious. “The
worst thing that happens with UAVs is that people ask them to do
a lot, and they are asked to do more and more,” he said. “If
you think they have problems with the Predator, wait until they
do the UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle), because it is not
going to be easy.”
The Predator was not designed to be armed, but nevertheless is
being equipped with Hellfire missiles. The senior Air Force official
said, without providing specifics, that a UAV mission recently demonstrated
that Predator was “combat capable” as a Hellfire shooter.
He noted that the armed Predator is compliant with the Intermediate-Range
Nuclear Forces, or INF Treaty, which restricts the use of long-range
To be able to mount two Hellfire missiles per aircraft, the wings
had to be modified.
The Air Force spokeswoman said that the testing had two phases.
One focused on safely launching a Hellfire missile from a low altitude
and hitting a target. The second phase was about engaging targets
from altitudes as high as 15,000 feet. However, portions of the
second phase have not been completed yet, the spokeswoman said.
The plan was to try to hit moving targets, but the Air Force senior
official said they ran out of money before they could accomplish
that part of the test.
During the Hellfire tests, the official said, there were concerns
about the 100-pound load and how it would affect the aircraft. “We
did reduce endurance by a couple of hours because of the drag,”
he said. “We also dissembled a wing to see how much fracturing
we had, and we didn’t have that much.”
General Atomics is currently developing Predator B, a turbo-prop
system that, officials said, will have 50 percent more payload capacity,
an endurance for up to 24 hours and speeds over 220 knots operating
at altitudes of 45,000 feet.