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Air Force to Build Up Its Drone Supply

Saturday, March 19, 2005; Page A04

The Air Force said yesterday that it plans to buy enough Predator drones to equip 15 squadrons over the next five years, up from three currently, to use in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots.

"The increase is in response to the escalating demand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability in the ongoing global war on terror," the Air Force said.

Predator drones, such as this one in El Mirage, Calif., can be piloted from thousands of miles away and have been used in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Doug Benc -- AP)

The Predator, resembling an upside-down spoon, may be piloted from thousands of miles away. Some versions have been equipped to fire laser-guided anti-armor Hellfire missiles in addition to collecting intelligence.

The Air Force would spend $5.7 billion over the next five years for the drones, built by privately owned General Atomics Aeronautical System Inc. of San Diego, said Capt. Shelley Lai, a spokeswoman.

The expanded number of brigades, each consisting of about 12 Predators, would be used to support U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other, unspecified missions, Lai said.

"If there's a homeland security mission, that has not been defined yet," she said.

The Air Force plans to set up new Predator squadrons in Texas and Arizona in 2006 and 2007 and in New York in 2009, she said.

Remotely piloted aircraft, including Northrop Grumman Corp.'s high-flying Global Hawk, play a growing role in U.S. military operations, providing such things as reconnaissance images and battlefield video. Less expensive than manned warplanes, they also keep U.S. pilots out of harm's way.

The expanded reliance on such remotely piloted spy planes underscores the shift in how the United States gathers intelligence, said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a research group in Arlington.

"During the Cold War, the United States relied very heavily on satellites in orbit to find Russian missiles silos and to track the Red Army," he said.

"Today's threats often require getting much closer to the enemy so that you can see small bands of terrorists or listen in on cell phone conversations," Thompson said.

The current three active-duty Predator squadrons are based at Nellis Air Force Base and Indian Springs Auxiliary Field in Nevada.

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