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Predator to See More Combat

Drone Will Get More Weapons for 'Hunter-Killer' Missions

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page A03

The newest version of the Air Force's Predator unpiloted aircraft will perform primarily "hunter-killer" missions, according to newly available Pentagon documents.

The current Predator's primary mission has been to supply real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for other forces. The new Predator B will perform that as a secondary role, according to the documents sent to Congress last month and now published on a Pentagon Web site.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved broader tasks in March 1 National Defense Strategy. (Freddie Lee, FOX News--Reuters)

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The current Predator, which CIA operators originally armed with just two Hellfire missiles in late 2001, has since proven itself in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Predator B will be armed with as many as 3,000 pounds of precision-guided bombs or missiles and carry sensors that will allow it to automatically find, track and hit moving targets on the ground.

The new aircraft would be intended to fulfill broader tasks outlined in the National Defense Strategy signed March 1 by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The strategy calls for denying sanctuary to enemies such as terrorist groups in ungoverned territories within otherwise sovereign countries anywhere in the world.

"A key goal," the Rumsfeld strategy program says, "is developing the capability to surge military forces rapidly from strategic distances to deny adversaries sanctuary." To do this, the strategy paper calls for "a number of capabilities, including persistent surveillance and precision strikes."

According to unclassified budget material, "The aircraft is being designed primarily to prosecute critical emerging time-sensitive targets as a radar-based attack asset with on-board hard-kill capability." The Predator B will fly at 50,000 feet, twice the altitude capable by its predecessor, and will carry seven times the munitions load. It will be able to stay aloft for more than 30 hours, covering targets hundreds of miles from its land base.

The current Predator already carries a targeting system built into a sensor turret that has both electro-optical and infrared imagery, a laser target marker and infrared illuminator. Together, they transmit "real-time motion imagery throughout the operational theater," according to the documents.

Powered by a new turboprop engine, the Predator B has started undergoing tests using advanced sensors and weapons payloads, controlled by pilots on the ground operating instruments that "function as the aircraft cockpit," one document says. From ground control stations at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas or new mobile ground stations that can be deployed abroad, Predator Bs can be manually or automatically run on missions almost anywhere in the world, using a combination of satellite- and ground-based communications.

At a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing March 9, Glenn Lamartin, director of defense systems for Rumsfeld, told members, "Two weeks ago . . . I saw [at Nellis ] Air Force Predator pilots and sensor operators working missions over 5,000 miles away under combat conditions. They operated from the safety of home."

At that same hearing, the price next year for each Predator was put at $12.5 million by Rep. Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii), the ranking Democrat on the panel. Over the next five years, Pentagon documents project purchases of 35 Predators to replace those that crash or are shot down and 24 Predator Bs, with the first 20 to be used for testing.

The price does not include the costs of developing the Joint Direct Attack Missile or Small Diameter Bomb that the Predator B will eventually carry. Those munitions will also be carried eventually on the B-1 and B-2 bombers and fighter-bombers.

Even before the Predator B is available for combat, the Air Force projects its annual spending to operate Predators will more than double. The additional costs, most of which will augment intelligence gathering and distribution, are to grow by $78 million this year, by $164 million next year and by $175 million the following year. No other element in the category of combat enhancement of air operations shows anywhere near that growth.

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