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[infowar.de] NYT, 18.4.03: In the Skies Over Iraq, Silent Observers Become Futuristic Weapons
April 18, 2003
In the Skies Over Iraq, Silent Observers Become Futuristic Weapons
By ERIC SCHMITT
ASHINGTON, April 17 ? On the third day of the Iraq war, a mysterious
American aircraft loitered high over Baghdad for hours on end, evading a
withering barrage of missile and artillery fire.
Even as Iraqi television showed gunmen shooting into the Tigris River's
banks at a phantom plane, the real aircraft ? a stripped-down, remotely
piloted RQ-1 Predator drone ? was landing in a lake 75 miles away, its
secret 33-hour mission accomplished: to flush out Baghdad's vaunted air
defenses so they could be pinpointed and attacked by waves of allied
Remotely piloted aircraft like the Predator have played a crucial role in
the Iraq war, not only providing a bird's-eye view of the battlefield but
also giving military planners the ability to kill fiercely defended
targets with a futuristic weapon ? all without risking American lives.
Predators first saw combat over Bosnia in 1995, while a prototype of the
larger, high-altitude Global Hawk first flew in the Afghan war. Both
aircraft have come of age in this conflict.
Never before has the military used so many unpiloted aircraft for such a
diverse array of missions. For example, the Air Force for the first time
flew several Predators simultaneously in Iraq.
The Predator, an ungainly, propeller-driven craft that flies as slowly as
80 miles per hour and is guided by an operator at a television monitor
hundreds or even thousands of miles away, has spotted targets with laser
beams and blasted others with its own Hellfire laser-guided missiles.
Predators have also flown surveillance on every major mission of the war,
from the two airstrikes against Saddam Hussein to the rescue of Pfc.
Jessica D. Lynch, beaming back live color video images (black-and-white at
night) so precisely with a 1,500-millimeter zoom lens that analysts can
discern uniformed soldiers from civilians from more than three miles away.
About 15 Predators are operating in Iraq ? roughly a third of the Air
Force's total fleet ? and they have flown more than 100 missions in the
war, many shrouded in secrecy, military officials said.
The higher-flying Global Hawk, using its special cloud-piercing radar, has
tracked Iraqi forces from 60,000 feet even during the fierce sandstorms
that grounded other reconnaissance planes early in the war. The
information it collects is fed to American command posts in the region
All the armed services are now using unpiloted aerial vehicles. The
Marines dispatched 20 Dragon Eye drones and 10 ground stations with the
First Marine Division, and the Army sent Hunter aircraft with ground
"We have over 10 different unmanned aerial vehicles on the battlefield,"
Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in
a speech on Wednesday. "Smaller ones to allow our soldiers to see over the
next hill; larger ones, like the Global Hawk, that provide all-weather,
day-or-night pictures over an entire area the size of Illinois for a
The Predator has already proved successful in the war against terror. Last
November, a Predator operated by the Central Intelligence Agency blasted a
car in Yemen, killing an operative of Al Qaeda and five other occupants of
On the battlefield in Iraq, Predators and Global Hawks have played
valuable roles in shortening what the military calls "the kill chain,"
from the time a potential target is identified to when it is attacked.
A typical mission in Iraq has started with one sensor, perhaps a Rivet
Joint reconnaissance airplane, intercepting a signal from an antiaircraft
missile radar. That information is then relayed to the Predator or Global
Hawk, which can home in on the suspected air defense site and relay its
coordinates to target planners in a command center in Saudi Arabia or
Qatar. Those planners then refine the targeting, checking to make sure
civilians are not nearby. They send attack instructions to an Awacs radar
plane, which in turn directs a strike plane, like an F-15E or F-16, to the
All this happens within a matter of minutes in a seamless integration of
sensors and shooters, military officials say. "Every day, we've had
Predators over the top of Baghdad looking for surface-to-air missile
radars, looking for missile launchers," Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the
air-war commander, told reporters earlier this month.
Flying from at least one air base in Kuwait, the 27-foot-long Predators
have performed several types of operations. With its ability to loiter
continuously for 24 hours or more at 15,000 feet above the battlefield,
Predators have sent live video to AC-130 gunships, spotted targets like
surface-to-surface missiles for A-10 and Tornado ground-attack planes, and
flown reconnaissance missions.
At least three Predators have been lost in the war, including two older
ones that were stripped of their sensors and sent up as cannon fodder to
reveal Iraqi gun emplacements. Both survived their missions and were
deliberately flown into lakes, away from civilians, when their fuel ran
out, military officials said.
The armed Predators, the MQ-1's, have fired more than a dozen Hellfire
missiles, a senior military official said.
"Predator has been a tremendous asset," said Col. Mace Carpenter, the
chief strategist at the air command center in Saudi Arabia. "The Global
Hawk performance was even greater. We need more."
If the Predators give commanders a soda-straw view of the battlefield, the
lone unarmed Global Hawk surveillance aircraft has provided the big
picture. The 44-foot-long Global Hawk performs missions similar to the U-2
spy plane, but without risking a pilot.
Flying from a base in the United Arab Emirates, the Global Hawk has flown
missions every day of the war, snapping pictures of some 200 to 300
individual sites or targets on flights that last up to 26 hours.
The photographs are then beamed back to analysts and interpreters, who can
dash off urgent text messages to commanders about specific sites and
produce a digital picture within minutes, officials said.
Target planners use this information to direct warplanes to specific
sites. "In our flight planning, we were able to move jets when we'd get
indications of Iraqi air defenses," said Maj. William Cahill, the Global
Hawk liaison officer at the air command center in Saudi Arabia.
With major combat operations now finished in Iraq, military officials say
the Predators and Global Hawk are monitoring territory that advancing
ground forces bypassed.
"The pace is definitely slowing down," Major Cahill said in a telephone
interview from Saudi Arabia. "There's less territory that U.S. forces do
not have access to. And sometimes it's easier for a troop to drive up in a
Humvee and take a picture with a 35-millimeter camera than for us to do it
from 60,000 feet."
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