The Little Predator That Could

March 1, 2002

The Afghanistan campaign featured most of the aircraft showcased in the 1990s: B-52, B-2, and B-1 bombers; Air Force and Navy fighters; C-17 transports; aerial tankers; surveillance and intelligence systems; and more. Yet the war’s media darling was a relative unknown–Predator.

It was an unlikely star. The Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle is an ungainly, slow-flying airplane. Made by a San Diego-based company called General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, its major mission is reconnaissance.

However, Predator was an instant hit because it could transmit live video footage of enemy actions to commanders on the ground and aircrews above the battlefield. It illuminated targets for precision weapons fired from afar. It even, on occasion, fired its own weapons, a rarity for a UAV.

Now, as airpower analysts pore over the facts of the war, they seem convinced that Predator played a key role in one of the war’s major breakthroughs: the sharp compression of the sensor-to-shooter cycle, the amount of time that elapses between the moment a target is identified and the moment it is attacked.

Slashing that time from hours to minutes-or less-has long been a goal of the Revolution in Military Affairs, a fundamental shift in warfare in which rapid processing of targeting data and other information would supposedly provide dramatic advantages on the battlefield. The Predator appears to have validated some of those beliefs.

“The Predator worked really well,” says a senior Air Force official involved in Operation Enduring Freedom. “It enabled dramatic increases in timing and accuracy.”

Afghanistan wasn’t the Predator’s first combat appearance. It carried out missions over Bosnia during NATO’s brief 1995 air campaign there.

Although it made only minimal contributions in that war, defense officials were impressed and intrigued by the UAV’s power to provide real-time video feeds of ground activity. This stood in stark contrast to the often days-old images typically provided by satellites and U-2 spyplanes.

Even though it hadn’t officially reached initial operational capability (and still hasn’t), Predator was assigned to two active duty Air Force units-the 11th and 15th Reconnaissance Squadrons (activated in 1995 and 1997, respectively), based at Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field near Nellis AFB, Nev.-so that it could be deployed on real-world missions if needed.

See It Now

NATO’s Operation Allied Force over Kosovo in 1999 brought raves for the Predator. This time, air planners were prepared to take advantage of Predator’s real-time capabilities. Video feeds were downloaded via satellite links to the command center at Aviano AB, Italy. Planners there relayed data to airborne forward air controllers to help them find targets that, without spotters on the ground, were difficult to locate.

The setup produced some dramatic moments. During a bomber raid in southern Kosovo, a Predator circled above Yugoslav troops even as they were being struck. This enabled staff officers at the operations center to see the effects of a B-52 strike for themselves–while it happened.

By the end of the Kosovo war, the Pentagon had outfitted Predators with laser designators that would have enabled them to highlight targets for F-16s, F/A-18s, and other bomb droppers that carried ordnance. The war ended, though, before the Predator actually got a chance to designate any targets.

Meanwhile, Predators had also begun flying above Iraq to help with reconnaissance in Operation Southern Watch, their first mission in the Central Command area of operations. The Predators flew from Kuwait and helped locate targets, mainly for strikes against Iraqi air defense systems. These missions still take place.

There were problems, too. At least two Predators crashed in Kosovo, and three crashed in Iraq. Those incidents reveal several vulnerabilities. The Predator can fly as high as 25,000 feet, beyond the range of many surface-to-air weapons. But the resolution of video and still images from that altitude can by spotty, forcing the airplane to fly much lower, perhaps as low as 10,000 feet.

At low altitude, the unstealthy, relatively slow-moving Predator presents an easy target for air-defense weapons. The Pentagon hasn’t released exact details of all Predator crashes, but it does acknowledge that it has lost about 20 of the aircraft since the program began. “The bulk of those,” says an Air Force official, “were lost over enemy territory.”

As testing continued, the Pentagon highlighted other deficiencies. In a 2001 report, the Pentagon’s operational test and evaluation office argued that “the Predator UAV system is not operationally effective or suitable.”

A Laundry List

That scathing report listed many instances in which the Predator failed to meet the Pentagon’s own performance standards. Problems included “poor target location accuracy, ineffective communications, and limits imposed by relatively benign weather, including rain.” The system was unreliable and failed to meet maintainability requirements. It was unable to spend enough time on station when flown from a base 400 miles distant, the required operating range. Its pictures weren’t accurate enough at the required slant range of 30,000 feet, meaning it would have to fly at lower, more vulnerable heights to gather data that was truly useful.

In addition, the report warned that Predator is delicate. “The Predator,” said the report, “cannot be launched in adverse weather, including any visible moisture such as rain, snow, ice, frost, or fog.”

Despite those findings, Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander in chief of Central Command, evidently considered the Predator a high priority, since several Predator teams were among the first troops dispatched to central Asia after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Central Command sent at least one team each to Uzbekistan and Pakistan.

Each Predator team includes four airplanes. The aircraft itself measures 27 feet in length, with a wingspan of nearly 49 feet. There’s also a ground station, where the “pilots,” or controllers, fly the airplane remotely, using a TV camera in the nose to monitor airspace and runways.

A satellite link handles communications between the aircraft, controllers, and anybody receiving imagery. About 60 people man the team; this includes controllers, maintenance personnel, and intelligence specialists.

The Air Force has purchased enough Predators to equip 12 teams, though only 10 systems have been delivered. The Air Force also buys seven or eight per year as “attrition aircraft,” held in reserve to replace aircraft lost in action. Each Predator aircraft costs about $2.5 million. An entire system, including ground control stations and peripherals, runs to $25 million.

The Predators that flew over Afghanistan were outfitted with a mix of electro-optical cameras that shoot video, an infrared sensor that can pick up images at night, and synthetic aperture radar that can see objects through clouds. The sensors are sufficiently powerful to recognize large facilities such as supply dumps and identify vehicles smaller than a tank. They’re not as sophisticated as sensors on U-2s or satellites because they need to be small and light enough to fit one of the Air Force’s smallest airframes and still leave room for enough fuel to keep the Predator aloft for up to 24 hours.

Teamwork Is Best

For this reason, Predator is at its most effective when used in conjunction with other intelligence sources, to confirm the location of enemy troops, gather real-time intelligence on targets that may already have been identified, or scout for targets that troops on the ground or other intelligence systems might be able to examine in great detail. “We have now demonstrated that, with something like Predator, we can stay in an area, we can focus, we can watch something develop,” says Air Force Secretary James G. Roche. “We have time to say, ‘OK, let’s move some aircraft into the area.'”

The unmanned spyplanes take off like a normal airplane, except that the pilot is in the ground control station and not in the aircraft. Takeoffs and landings must be manually controlled, but the Predator, once it is en route to its monitoring orbit or on-station site, can fly a preprogrammed flight path. The controller can even leave his seat in the ground control station. If there’s some kind of in-flight problem, or if new intelligence feeds require the Predator to fly to a new location to gather information, the controller can retake command of the aircraft and direct it where it needs to go.

As real-world operations over Afghanistan got under way, some shortcomings began to surface. At least three Predators crashed in the theater. Two of those were the result of wing icing caused by flying in clouds. With the capability to fly as high as 25,000 feet, the Predator, theoretically, can stay above bad weather. But with its sensors unable to gather quality images at that height, it had to fly lower, where icing occurs.

The Predator can also be outfitted with a de-icing system, but the added weight would either reduce the payload of sensors the airplane could carry or cut short the length of the mission. The Air Force hasn’t said whether the Predators were carrying the de-icing package.

Another problem was the satellite communications link, which occasionally broke off-and was very difficult to re-establish when it did so. That may have contributed to one or more of the losses.

Aside from the crashes, operators who worked with the Predator in real-world conditions over Afghanistan are much more upbeat about its performance than the Pentagon testers.

“I read that report,” says one Air Force general, “and I thought, ‘That’s very interesting, because it’s working well with us.’ “

One standout success: use of intelligence from the Predator to set up strikes by AC-130 gunships, which fire artillery-like 105 mm shells along with smaller rounds from chain guns. Central Command outfitted the AC-130s with terminals that enabled the aircrews to get Predator feeds directly in the airplane-a major improvement on the 1999 Kosovo war, when Predator video was downloaded to the operations center and then passed piecemeal to pilots in the air, usually by voice communications. “You have the ability to do something and have the operator of the Predator work with the gunship team to rein the target into their targeting system,” says Roche.

Downloading data right into the gunships allowed the aircrews to gather situational awareness of the area they were headed to attack before they even got there.

Start Blasting

Typically, a Predator would be orbiting above a target such as a troop emplacement or a convoy of vehicles, undetected by the enemy forces on the ground. AC-130s en route to the target would be able to study the real-time video of the target until they got within firing range. Then, instead of having to make a pass or two to get oriented, they could just arrive and blast away.

“The AC-130, when it’s teamed with Predator, pretty much hits what it’s going after, after the first practice round,” said one senior officer at Central Command headquarters in Tampa.

Getting raw, fresh intelligence data into the aircraft is a breakthrough for pilots and other operators who have long been considered “customers” of the intelligence system. “In the past, we have always relied on something associated with a time delay,” says one USAF general. “A third party was always involved in distribution.” That was an enormous frustration during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when it often took days for intelligence experts to complete their analysis and obtain the classification clearances required to get targeting information or other critical data to pilots and others who needed it. “Now,” says the general, “there’s no intel geek involved in the processing.”

Predator data was still distributed to the air operations center in Saudi Arabia, to Central Command headquarters at MacDill AFB, Fla., and to the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency in Washington, D.C. But the pilots in the air over the target got it just as quickly as the bureaucrats half a world away.

Certainly UAVs and other advanced technology systems have been touted as cornerstones of the Administration’s military transformation. Now it appears President Bush is ready to put dollars on the line. He announced Jan. 23 that such high-tech weaponry is a top priority in his Fiscal 2003 budget.

Bush called them expensive but declared “the tools of modern warfare … essential.”

“Buying these tools may put a strain on the budget,” he maintained, “but we will not cut corners when it comes to the defense of our great land.”

With that kind of endorsement, there should be little doubt that the Pentagon can expand its UAV programs. The next push will be to get Predator video into the cockpits of all the Air Force and Navy fighter jets.

And airpower planners want to continue fusing all intelligence data, whether from Predator or other sources, into a single common picture that will tell pilots everything that is known about a target area into which they are flying.

The trick now is building the airplane data links that can handle a fairly large stream of data. “With the data link, all the things somebody else knows can be shared,” says Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf, the Air Force’s director of operational requirements. “The data links give situational awareness with far less effort.”

Another breakthrough in the war was the use of the Predator to fire weapons, specifically anti-armor Hellfire missiles. The Pentagon is tight-lipped about this effort, mainly because it was run by the Central Intelligence Agency. Claims of success may be overstated. Reports suggest that armed Predators were reserved for high-value targets, such as one convoy carrying the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. The same reports also suggest they missed.

Even so, tests of the concept of using Predator as a shooter have been encouraging. About a year ago, the Air Force equipped several Predators with two Hellfire missiles each, one under each wing. Of 16 Hellfires fired from Predators, 12 scored direct hits on old tank carcasses. Three of the misses hit right behind the tank, while one missed by miles, but a defense official attributed that miss to the missile.

One senior Air Force official says that additional lessons from Afghanistan are that “we need to put more weapons on the plane. Two is not enough.” He also derides the 100-pound Hellfire as a “teeny weapon.” That suggests the Hellfires may have come close to killing the intended targets but failed because they lacked the explosive force and there were no follow-on strikes. Since it is difficult to put more or bigger weapons on the small Predator, one solution may be equipping big bomb droppers like the B-52 with some of the sensors on board the Predator. That would put ample combat power on the same platform as the sensors finding the targets.

Predator’s Bigger Brother

Another Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, the Global Hawk, had its operational debut over Afghanistan. The Global Hawk is newer than the Predator and at an earlier stage of development. The Air Force initially received five test systems, one of which crashed during a test flight. One crashed in the war. The Pentagon hasn’t said why, although it appears that it was not hostile fire. Bad weather or a mechanical problem seem more likely causes.

The Air Force isn’t scheduled to stand up a Global Hawk squadron until 2004, but the Pentagon still shipped at least two Global Hawks to the theater near Afghanistan. They were an enormous hit.

“Global Hawk is amazing,” said one USAF general. “It is magnificent.”

While Predator’s role is to zero in on “dwell” targets and provide situational awareness for pilots working a particular area, Global Hawk does much broader surveillance. It flies at elevations of 60,000 feet or more, like the U-2, and has higher resolution cameras than the Predator. It doesn’t shoot live video but can capture images through clouds and at night.

Follow-on versions may collect signals intelligence as well as imagery. Global Hawk can fly for nearly a day and a half without being refueled, meaning it can take off from a base 1,200 miles away, loiter for 24 hours, then fly back. It is designed to work in conjunction with the Predator and other intelligence systems to gather a layered picture of the battlefield and the space above it. Many analysts believe it will ultimately replace the U-2.

It certainly seems to have the range to do so. One USAF official estimates that three to five of the $50 million Global Hawks could have kept tabs on all of Afghanistan, which is roughly the size of Texas. “It’s like a low Earth orbit satellite that’s present all the time,” he explained. “You can see why a warfighter would be pretty excited about that.”

Like Predator video, Global Hawk images can be fed directly to the commanders and warfighters who need it most urgently. The man is not leaving the loop entirely, but in future wars there will certainly be fewer chances for him to foul things up.

Richard J. Newman is a former Washington, D.C.-based defense correspondent and senior editor for US News & World Report. He is now based in the New York office of US News. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Tankers and Lifters for a Distant War,” appeared in the January 2002 issue.