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Posted: 3/28/2006 7:42:38 PM EDT
March 28, 2006

UAVs come of age, exact a price

By Lolita C. Baldor
Associated Press

An airman with the 64th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron guides a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle into its hangar following a mission on Thursday at Tallil Air Base, Iraq. — Robert Grande / U.S. Air Force / AP Photo

Piloted remotely from a Nevada air base half a world away or by soldiers on the scene, unmanned aircraft have become so indispensable in Iraq and in the war on terror that by next year the U.S. could be spending nearly seven times more on the vehicles than it did before the 9/11 attacks.

The aircraft were heavily used after last month’s bombing of a mosque in Samarra, Iraq, highlighting how prevalent they have become for a military thirsty for vehicles that can drop bombs or hover over targets without risking pilots’ lives.

When Iraq erupted in ethnic violence after the Feb. 22 attack on the sacred mosque, the planes — known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs — lingered over trouble spots so officials could used the crafts’ video cameras to see where crowds were gathering and whether they were armed or violent.

Underscoring their importance, spending on the planes is expected to total at least $12 billion over the next five years. The spike in annual spending — from $300 million in 2001 when terrorists attacked America to perhaps $2 billion next year — will pay for at least 132 UAVs, including a new version for the Navy, beefed up models for the Army and a major effort to solve technical problems.

“The services are demanding them — they can’t get enough Predators in Iraq,” said Dan Goure, defense analyst at the Lexington Institute. “Now the revolution has come. And it’s going to be explosive over the next few years.”

Meeting the growing demands for UAVs from commanders in Iraq has come at a price, since many of the aircraft were sent to the warfront before communications problems were ironed out.

“We didn’t want to say, ‘Let’s deny someone their ability to be combat effective because we’re waiting for some perfect technology,”’ said Army Col. John Burke, director of unmanned systems integration.

At least 700 unmanned aerial vehicles of all shapes and sizes are being used in Iraq, with dozens often jostling for room in the crowded airspace 24 hours a day. The Army controls about 600 of them, mostly the smaller Ravens that soldiers can carry in backpacks and fling into the air for surveillance.

So far there has been one reported collision of a small UAV and a helicopter in Iraq, according to Air Force Maj. Gen. Norman Seip, assistant deputy chief of staff for air operations. He said no one was injured.

At least five times in December, the larger unmanned Air Force Predators flown remotely by airmen sitting at consoles in a Nevada Air Force base bombed insurgent strongholds in western Anbar province.

“The demand for a lot of these UAVs, especially the smaller ones, has gone through the roof,” said Bruce Nelson, deputy director of the Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance programs.

Goure predicted spending in 2007 could reach $2.5 billion, though some of it will be hidden because it is classified or buried in other high-tech programs. The government buys many different unmanned systems for the military services, and the intelligence community also buys its own.

The Army’s Raven weighs less than 5 pounds, can be carried in a backpack, and can be flung into the air to locate roadside bombs or beam back live pictures of targets.

Some of the smaller models cost as little as $25,000 apiece.

The Air Force’s deadly Predators, which can launch missiles, are 27 feet long and are flown remotely by airmen sitting far away in the United States.

And the larger Global Hawk surveillance aircraft, which can cost more than $80 million each, can reach an altitude of 65,000 feet and send back high-resolution imagery.

The Army and Air Force, said Burke, are trying to develop a video system that would let troops in several locations control the same aircraft. New York-based L-3 Communications is one of the prime contractors developing the equipment.

In the past four years the Army has gone from owning a handful of UAV systems — each of which include a console that controls several aircraft — to more than 300.

The Navy has been spending comparatively little on unmanned vehicles. But it is preparing to buy a new helicopter-like UAV called the Fire Scout that can take off and land vertically on ships.

The technology has changed greatly since the first remote-controlled drones were used to train anti-aircraft gunners during World War II. During the Vietnam War, the Air Force used jet-powered drones carrying cameras to spy on North Vietnam and China.

The newer models gained widespread use for the first time in the Kosovo war in 1999.

President Bush’s proposed budget for 2007 would buy:

• Six Air Force Global Hawks.

• 26 Air Force Predators, built by California-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.

• Four Navy Fire Scouts, built by Northrop Grumman Corp.

• 20 small UAVs for the Army, including the Ravens.

Over the next five years, the Pentagon plans to buy at least 219 Predators for the Air Force and special operations forces and 35 Global Hawks.
Link Posted: 3/28/2006 7:50:46 PM EDT
Great, now bring on the X-47s and the like. Then we just need Mechs and I'm happy.
Link Posted: 3/28/2006 7:51:22 PM EDT
Link Posted: 3/28/2006 8:18:38 PM EDT
Wow, the USAF is allowing Airmen to fly the UAV's. Last, I had heard (a couple of years ago), only Officers were doing the piloting in the USAF.
Link Posted: 3/28/2006 8:20:52 PM EDT
Makes you wonder about the toys that we still don't admit that we have to play with doesn't it?
Link Posted: 3/28/2006 8:21:02 PM EDT
Skynet, here we come.
Link Posted: 3/28/2006 8:31:59 PM EDT

Originally Posted By eodtech2000:
Wow, the USAF is allowing Airmen to fly the UAV's. Last, I had heard (a couple of years ago), only Officers were doing the piloting in the USAF.



For the Ravens, anybody can learn how to fly one. I got to fly one a few times. For the most part, it was guys that were in the unit but didn't really have any other job to do (i.e. TOC monkeys).

If they let me fly one, they'll let anyone fly one.
Link Posted: 3/28/2006 9:50:50 PM EDT

Originally Posted By eodtech2000:
Wow, the USAF is allowing Airmen to fly the UAV's. Last, I had heard (a couple of years ago), only Officers were doing the piloting in the USAF.



I recently spoke with a deadheading pilot who used to fly predators. Only officers may shoot at a target. Anyone can fly them.
Link Posted: 3/28/2006 10:01:12 PM EDT

Originally Posted By eodtech2000:
Wow, the USAF is allowing Airmen to fly the UAV's. Last, I had heard (a couple of years ago), only Officers were doing the piloting in the USAF.


No NO enlisted scum could ever fly a Predator. The enlisted swine is merely a sensor operator (slews the payload sensors around with a joystick). The left seat is still reserved for a "trained killer" bag-wearing fully rated flight pay receiving Air Force Officer/Pilot. Trust me, I worked on them for three years, and that's one thing I know hasn't changed. Actually the thing is a PITA to fly, I have many many simulator hours (the sim is the exact same control station that you fly it with). We got bored on mids back in the day so we fired up the sim and flew into buildings a lot.
Link Posted: 3/28/2006 10:06:23 PM EDT
Officers It's always nice to have a guy who's spent 10 years in the service call a guy who's got 2 weeks out of OTS "sir"......


Link Posted: 3/29/2006 7:00:50 AM EDT
Pays my bills.
Link Posted: 3/29/2006 8:07:06 AM EDT
It'll be interesting to see how the military will react when unskilled pilots start planting their UAVs into the ground on bad landings and in bad weather.
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