Spies in sky guide strikes
Unmanned planes inform without risk
Small robotic aircraft may help the U.S. military to identify targets and
assess damage in the Afghan war.
Ten years after they were extensively deployed in the Gulf War, robotic
aircraft with video camera "eyes" have found a secure niche in U.S. military
Known as "unmanned aerial vehicles" (UAVs), their primary role is
surveillance: They prowl over enemy terrain and transmit what they "see" back
to their ground operators, who remotely guide them with joysticks.
UAVs can provide valuable battlefield information that couldn't otherwise be
obtained without endangering U.S. pilots. "The value (of UAVs) is saving
lives," stressed Cheryl Owen, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of
On Sept. 22, the Taliban forces in Afghanistan claimed to have shot down an
unpiloted plane over the Tashgurgan Pass. In response, Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld told reporters the United States had lost touch with an
unpiloted plane but had no reason to believe it had been shot down.
Late last week on CNN, retired NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Wesley Clark said:
"I think there are many unmanned aerial vehicles already over that region."
NOT A TOY
UAVs were "thought of as toys for many years," acknowledges a Pentagon Web
site. But that's no longer true. Because it's cheaper to build a UAV than an
aircraft for humans, more UAVs can be built and sent into battle zones than
human-carrying aircraft, said Pentagon spokeswoman Owen.
Carrying sensors able to see through clouds, she noted, UAVs "give you a sense
of the battlefield without putting your airmen in danger." The aircraft carry
infrared sensors that allow them to see warm objects, such as tank engines, in
At the moment, leading military UAVs include the U.S. Army's Israeli-made
Hunter, which is more than 20 feet long with an almost 30-foot wingspan, and
the U.S. Air Force's Predator, which is more than 26 feet long and has a
wingspan of nearly 50 feet.
Hunter was used for surveillance in the American bombing of Kosovo, Owen said.
PIONEER IN ITS FIELD
The oldest active-duty drone in the U.S. military is the Pioneer, first
deployed in 1986. Its developers included an Israeli firm.
The military is also field-testing the 12-ton Global Hawk, a Teledyne Ryan-
developed drone that "can travel 12,500 miles for up to 38 to 42 hours on one
tank of gas" and can fly more than 10 miles high, Owen said.
During the Gulf War, all the military services flew more than 500 sorties of
UAVs lasting a total of over 1,600 hours.
UAVs are increasingly common tools in the armies of other countries. Late last
week, Predator manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San
Diego announced it had signed a $60 million contract to sell Predators to the
Italian Air Force.
"Since 1994, the Predator system has been operated by the U.S. Air Force and
has proven its military utility as an essential intelligence gatherer and
targeting system," said the firm's president, Thomas J. Cassidy Jr.
CONTROL IN THE SKIES
Military drones are becoming so common that they might endanger civilian
airliners. According to Jane's Airport Review, European UAV firms have started
a project to help air traffic controllers monitor drones as well as civilian
California is a center of UAV development and testing, one example being the
Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake. The Global Hawk will be operated out
of Beale Air Force Base, 40 miles north of Sacramento, Air Force Chief of
Staff Gen. John P. Jumper announced last week.
No active-duty U.S. drones carry weapons -- yet. But research teams are
developing drones for carrying bombs, Owen said. They're also planning to
update the Predator by arming it with an anti-tank missile called Hellfire.
The old science-fiction dream of an "automated battlefield," where robots
fight rather than humans, is still a ways off. A baby step toward it was taken
a few years ago when Sen. John Warner, R-Va., inserted a passage in a
procurement bill stating that by or before 2006, 25 to 35 percent of all
military aircraft should be unmanned, Owen said.
Down the road, the brass hope to develop "micro" aircraft that can travel
through urban areas and buildings for surveillance purposes. Among the devices
being developed is one "about the size of a robin," Owen said.
An omen of the automated battlefield occurred during the Gulf War: Five Iraqi
soldiers "surrendered" to a robotic aircraft by waving white flags as it flew
Keeping an eye from afar
The U.S.-British military strike in Afghanistan was preceded by surveillance
using satellites, high-altitude spy planes and unmanned aerial vehicles
(UAVs), or drones, such as the Predator. The surveillance provided information
on terrain, people and structures, such as terrorist training camps, without
endangering a pilot.
-- How the drone functions
The Predator needs a 3,000-foot runway and can take off from terrain like dry
1 Drone takes off
2 Drone is operated from ground control station via satellites.
3 Near-real-time video is transmitted to ground control operators. Infrared
camera allows operator to view people, cars and trucks 20 miles away from
-- Capturing images
A military operation could use images similar to those below to determine
whether a site should be targeted for a strike.
Satellite image provides a snapshot of the area and can detect the presence of
Drones' high-magnification cameras can show differences of people on the
-- Length: 26.7 ft.
-- Width: 48.7 ft.
-- Cruising speed: 80-104 mph
-- Maximum altitude: 26,000 ft.
-- Weight: 1,500 pounds
-- Imaging capabilities: High-resolution images in any type of weather, day
Sources: Department of Defense; General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.;
John Pike, www.GlobalSecurity.org; Federation of American Scientists
--- --- --- --- ---
Useless hypotheses, etc.:
consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism, GAC, Cyc, Eliza, cryonics, individual
uniqueness, ego, human values, scientific relinquishment
We move into a better future in proportion as science displaces superstition.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Sat May 11 2002 - 17:44:13 MDT