NEAR THE KUWAIT-IRAQ BORDER—The U.S. Air Force has positioned unmanned, missile-carrying aircraft to lead an attack on Iraq, targeting armored vehicles and buildings.
The aircraft, called the Predator, is new since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but it played a crucial role for the United States during fighting in Bosnia in the mid-1990s and against terrorists more recently.
"It gives us long endurance, eyes over the battle space, and does not put any air crew in harm's way," said Squadron Commander Gary E. Fabricius, 41, a pilot who is in charge of four Predators at an air base the military asked not to be precisely identified.
Three people run the 27-foot-long plane from the ground, a pilot and two people who operate its sensors. "For me, it's kind of the same thing as PlayStation," said sensor operator Immanuel T. Adderly, 19, of Lakewood, Wash., referring to the computer game system.
Guided by "the ball"—a set of cameras in a globelike case that swivels and pivots from a perch beneath the fuselage—the operators keep a close watch on the ground while the propeller-driven plane flies as high as 25,000 feet and as slow as 150 mph.
"We actually saw a guy flick a cigarette" in a recent patrol over Iraq's no-fly zone, said sensor operator Shawn Compton, 20, from Cotopaxi, Colo. "It's a $5 million video game that can save lives."
The Predator was first tested in 1994, and the Air Force deployed it in Bosnia the next year to provide intelligence and monitor targets it attacked with bombs and missiles.
The Predator was modified to carry Hellfire missiles in 2001 and used to strike Taliban and al-Qaida positions in Afghanistan. That November, a missile fired by a Predator killed al-Qaida's military chief, Mohammed Atef. And in November 2002, a Predator operated by the CIA shot a missile that killed Qaed Salim Sinan al Harethi, al Qaida's leader in Yemen, and five other suspected members of the terrorist group.
After putting several dozen Predators into operation, the United States placed a $160 million order last fall for 22 more, along with their associated ground-control stations.
In those stations, the operators watch the ground and the air through a color camera in the nose of the plane and the other cameras in the ball below, including an infrared camera for seeing things at night and a device for looking through smoke and haze.
The operators try to act as if they're inside the craft, Fabricius said. He compared the experience to looking through a straw, and said it took concentration.
(Researcher Tish Wells contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Predator
ARCHIVE GRAPHICS on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20021105 Predator profile, 20021105 Predator Hellfire