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[] USNWR 19.05.03: The Joystick War,

U.S. News & World Report
May 19, 2003

The Joystick War

Run from afar, Predators and other spy gear signal a new era of 
remote-control warfare

By Richard J. Newman

Early in the Iraq war, an unmanned Predator surveillance plane captured 
live video of an Iraqi Roland surface-to-air missile on the ground north of 
Baghdad. Since the missile threatened U.S. aircraft--and was mobile and 
easy to hide--air commanders called for a quick airstrike. They directed a 
nearby A-10 warplane to ready its laser-guided bombs, while the Predator 
itself prepared to guide those bombs onto the target with its laser 
designator. Such "buddy lasing" is a common targeting tactic. But this time 
there was one notable difference: The pilot operating the Predator was 
sitting in a trailer at an American air base, 7,000 miles away.

Remote-control warfare has finally arrived. While there was much 
hand-wringing during the war about whether there were enough U.S. ground 
forces in Iraq, air commanders were eager to consign as many duties as 
possible to the United States and elsewhere. Last May the Air Force 
approved "remote split operations" by Predator units, which allowed about 
half of the 15 Predators in the theater to be operated from the United 
States--the first time that pilots have "flown" combat sorties without 
leaving their home bases. The experiment appears to have 
succeeded--U.S.-based Predator operators helped find and destroy hundreds 
of targets. Some even fired Hellfire missiles, hung under Predator wings, 
at targets on the ground.

Stateside battle. Hundreds of other troops involved in Operation Iraqi 
Freedom spent the war back home as well. At Langley Air Force Base in 
Virginia, dozens of analysts pored over targeting data and responded to 
urgent requests for intelligence from ground troops inside Iraq. 
Intelligence experts at other U.S. bases controlled the sensors on U-2 and 
Global Hawk spy planes. And the Air Force is preparing for the day when an 
entire air operations center, like the one in Saudi Arabia from which the 
air war was run, is situated in the United States.

Some troops, of course, will always be needed in the war zone. The Predator 
units, for instance, still must deploy crews to maintain the planes and 
handle takeoffs and landings in the theater. But once the planes are 
airborne, satellite links allow "mission control"--the remote-control 
piloting of the aircraft and its cameras--to happen from anywhere.

There are numerous benefits to remote control. The ground stations--nearly 
30 interconnected trailers that require 17 sorties on huge C-5 cargo jets 
to deploy--can stay put. Another plus "is the flexibility it provides 
combatant commanders," says Lt. Col. Stewart Kowall, operations officer for 
the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. 
Predators are in such demand by U.S. forces worldwide that it can only help 
to centralize their control. Finally, the control units don't have to 
endure long deployments. Commanders still need to enforce wartime 
discipline, insists Col. Charlie Lyon, commander of the 57th Operations 
Group at Nellis. But "at the end of the work day, you walk back into the 
rest of life in America."

For the latest remote operations to be effective, breakthroughs in data 
processing and reforms in the sharing of intelligence were essential. In 
the recent war with Iraq, less than an hour might elapse between the time 
Predator operators in the United States spotted a target and combat pilots 
in the theater bombed it. Twelve years ago, during the first Gulf War, it 
typically took four hours or more for images to get to intelligence 
officers and for them to navigate multiple layers of bureaucracy to send 
top-secret data to those who could act.

Enamored as commanders are of unmanned aerial vehicles, however, the future 
of the Predator is clouded by funding shortfalls and by disagreements over 
whether it should remain an intelligence-gathering tool or become something 
more. "Suddenly these are hot commodities and everybody has a mission plan 
for the Predator," gripes one intelligence officer. "Let's build a bigger 
one, a smaller one, a faster one, one with a bigger bomb bay." One 
certainty is a plan to build a version able to carry heavier bombs. That 
means the scrappy UAV will play an even bigger role in future wars. "This 
is not what we envisioned," admits Lyon, "when [the Predator] started out 
as an experimental program."

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