Predator: First Watch
Lesson learned: never send a man to do a machine’s job.
In the video several dark cars and a beige van have stopped on the side of a road, and five people are walking up to the first car, perhaps to check directions with its driver. Why else would they have stopped in the middle of nowhere? Because this video is being shot from an aircraft flying at maybe 10,000 feet, I'm surprised at how well I can see these people: I can make out four men, two with jackets, and a woman in a dress. It's as though I'm looking down from the rooftop of a building.
It's spellbinding to watch people who don't know they're being observed, and I want to keep watching, but the camera, part of the instrument payload on an RQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, moves on. The UAV is flying a routine mission from Tuzla, Bosnia, launched by the U.S. Air Force 15th Reconnaissance Squadron. This little caravan is obviously not what the Predator's masters are looking for.
"It's very rare that we even see people," says Senior Airman Heather Hunnel, 23, a sensor operator who directs the Predator's cameras and radar. "Mostly we see houses. Lots of houses. With no roofs."
We are inside the Predator's ground control station, a 30- by eight-foot structure very much like a semi-trailer. Hunnel and two colleagues have recently canceled the day's mission because of thunderstorms. The Predator has already returned to Eagle Base, a U.S. Army installation in Tuzla, and we're watching some video it recorded earlier. The same images were sent in real time by satellite and transoceanic cable to the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System node at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. From there they were relayed to 34 U.S. and allied command centers-like it says, worldwide.
What the Predator was looking for that day (or any day) is classified, but to put it simply, the airplane looks for trouble. The 15th Reconnaissance Squadron was in Bosnia to support SFOR, a "stabilization force" of 20,000 NATO troops sent there to serve as a buffer between the Muslims and Serbs who waged war for three and a half years. They also support KFOR, a similar force protecting civilians in Kosovo, 1.5 million of whom were driven from their homes by Federal Republic of Yugoslavia forces. It's up to SFOR and KFOR to see that all sides observe the cease-fire agreements. And the Predator has been one of their best ways to see.
The $3.2 million craft carries 450 pounds of imaging sensors: a fixed video camera in its nose so its pilots can see where it's going, and two daylight TV cameras, one with a 955-mm zoom lens, in a stabilized gimbal under its chin that steadies the lenses. It also carries an infrared camera with three telephoto lenses plus a synthetic aperture radar, which can penetrate clouds and spot vehicles hidden under trees; the return from metal is different from that of leaves. The radar builds a cumulative topographical map of the ground that looks like a grainy black-and-white photograph.
Because the Predator is small, white, and almost invisible in the sky, people don't realize they're being watched. Its 80-horsepower four-stroke Rotax 912 engine is virtually silent at altitude but as annoying as a chainsaw on the ground. Early models powered snowmobiles and jet skis, but later versions are FAA-approved for aircraft. The aircraft can be picked up on radar, but most search radar systems filter out low-speed targets so that they don't pick out birds or objects that don't pose threats. The Predator can fly at around 70 mph, slow enough to hide from such radars.
In the video, a wisp of cloud drifts past the camera's lens, and roads, haystacks, and villages slide by below. It looks like rural Vermont except for the busted-up houses.
The Pentagon started test flying the Predator in the fall of 1994. Almost immediately after it first saw action the following summer over Bosnia, one was shot down by anti-aircraft artillery. But it began its deployment without the radar that enables it to gather images through the clouds that help hide it. The unlucky aircraft had descended to 4,000 feet to get beneath a cloud layer and had lingered in a valley for about an hour at the behest of commanders in Naples, Italy. Its loss was virtually inevitable. Another Predator crashed a few days later because its engine quit.
Although both aircraft were lost, no mom or spouse had to open the letter that reports a loved one missing. The Joint Project Office, which manages the program, simply sent replacements and flew them for another three months before the Pentagon pulled the Predator from the theater, added the radar and a de-icing system, and sent it back to the Balkans in May 1996, this time with the newly formed 11th Reconnaissance Squadron operating it from Tazar, Hungary.
The Predator is the airplane the Pentagon wanted during Desert Storm, when Saddam Hussein was moving Scud missile launchers from place to place and Coalition aircraft couldn't find them. Although the Navy's Pioneer UAV flew reconnaissance missions in Iraq, it couldn't cover the territory that the Predator can. A high-data-rate satellite link enables its pilot to control it up to 400 miles away. Earlier UAVs simply lacked the Predator's range and altitude capabilities.
The 11th Reconnaissance Squadron and the 15th, activated in August 1997, took turns operating the Predator: watching borders, military installations, and demonstrations, as well as escorting convoys-when Pope John Paul II toured Bosnia in 1997, a Predator overflew his route. By the time NATO launched Operation Allied Force in March 1999, theater commanders had a pretty clear idea of what the UAV could do.
"Predator was a key asset in limiting collateral damage," says Major Scott Hatfield, a Predator program manager at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. During Operation Allied Force, UAV operators would receive a list of 30 to 40 targets-munitions plants, logistics centers, military barracks-that strike aircraft were scheduled to hit that day. Pilots would fly the Predator to each site to confirm its position and make sure it was clear of civilians or orbit slowly over a target to make sure it stayed clear. Other UAVs flew reconnaissance missions, but only the Predator can watch a target all day and, with its infrared sensor and radar, all night. It has an endurance of more than 40 hours, but its longest mission in the Balkans was only half that.
One of its biggest fans during Operation Allied Force was General John Jumper, the commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe at the time and now the chief of Air Combat Command. He spoke about the Predator at a recent colloquy in Washington, D.C., held by the Air Force Association and the Eaker Foundation. "We have documented instances of Serbian special police using the very tractors that the civilians were using to go from house to house to burn and to kill," he said. Distinguishing between Serbs and civilians takes lots of loiter time, which the Predator has plenty of. "The UAV, especially the Predator, came into its own," Jumper told the gathering.
UAVs performed bomb damage assessment, located targets in hollows and other shadowy areas where satellites and high fliers couldn't see, and searched for mobile targets like missile launchers, which the Serbs also camouflaged. They flew what Department of Defense spokeswoman Susan Hansen calls " 'D3' missions: those that are dirty, dull, or dangerous."
Frequently, theater commanders asked Predator flight crews to depart from a flight plan after they launched. Not everyone was happy when this happened. Lower-level officers sometimes grumbled that their superiors, who were talking to political leaders, were micro-managing reconnaissance and chasing after spurious targets while mission planners were waiting for bomb-damage assessments.
Although real-time video (purists say "near real time," since there's about a half-second delay in the network) was a powerful tool, the Pentagon's daily press briefings during Operation Allied Force provided a glimpse of the frustration that must have been felt by people who were watching-live-a bully in action but couldn't always do much to stop him. At one briefing Lieutenant General Charles F. "Chuck" Wald, at the time Joint Staff Vice Director for Strategic Plans and Policy, was showing a Predator video (UAVs supplied many of the videos used in briefings) in which a tank drives over a civilian car and crushes it. A house is afire across the street, but there is no apparent fighting going on in the area. Wald, angered by the images, told the assembled media, "I'm not sure how most people would interpret this, but this is about as unprofessional as anything I've ever seen a military force do.... If I was in that military I'd probably-definitely-quit."
Imagery delivered by the Predator could have an unexpectedly strong influence on target selection. When an act of savagery is seen in real time, the impulse to strike back is nearly overwhelming. After seeing the video, reporters asked whether the tank had been taken out. Wald said that a tank in the area had been destroyed, but he couldn't be sure it was the same one. He'd been expecting the question.
The process for getting the location of a target from the Predator to a strike aircraft is not as efficient as it could be, as the Air Force has recognized in studies of its own performance during Allied Force. Officers in the Vicenza, Italy operations center read from the video the latitude and longitude of the location where the Predator was looking. They then radioed an Airborne Command and Control aircraft, which passed the coordinates on to strike aircraft. In certain instances the commander skipped the intermediary and talked directly to the strike aircraft. The whole process, from spotting to striking, took about 10 minutes, says Wald. But the time was dependent on whether strike aircraft were available.
The plan for the future is to have imagery from UAVs, satellites, and other reconnaissance systems all stitched together to create what Air Force planners dreamily call "a seamless intelligence picture" beamed simultaneously to command center, command and control aircraft, and ground attack aircraft. Officers in the Air Force Aerospace Command, Control, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Center at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, believe they'll see such a seamless picture within a few years.
The Predator is a funny-looking little airplane, only 27 feet long with what looks like an oversize head but in reality is a compartment for the Ku-band satellite dish, which receives instructions from a pilot and sends imagery back. It has a glider's high-aspect-
ratio wings. Big, slab-like tailplanes splayed downward complete the look of a hydrocephalic insect, especially when its spindly landing gear lowers for approach.
"This is the hardest thing I've ever had to fly," says Captain Craig Babbitt, a 29-year-old pilot who had been flying C-130s before signing up for a two-year tour with the Predator. "You're looking at numbers. [Even when flying on instruments] in an airplane, you have all your senses. Only one person has said he's done something harder, and that's a carrier landing."
The pilot in the ground control station flies the Predator as he would a conventional aircraft-with a stick in his right hand and throttle in his left-only instead of looking through a windshield, he's watching the 30-degree field of view from the aircraft's nose camera. One pilot compares the sensation to "driving your car with paper towel tubes over your eyes."
The pilot and sensor operator, who sit side by side in the control station, face two 20-inch screens, one above the other. On the upper screen, a map of the target area is displayed with a symbol of the aircraft superimposed on it. The pilots must keep the Predator within a certain corridor a few miles in width. The corridor is also displayed on the map. "We're not so much flying a heading," one pilot said, "as we are keeping the aircraft within the corridor on our map display." Once the pilots level off at altitude, an autopilot holds altitude and airspeed.
On the pilot's lower screen, symbols overlying the nose camera video report the transponder code, airspeed, angle of attack, altitude, and other information, such as engine manifold pressure. Two smaller screens show what are called variable-information tables, displaying the positions of the flaps, for example, and engine temperature. The ground control station replicates the environment of an aircraft cockpit. The biggest difference between the two is that the Predator's pilot can switch off with a replacement and go outside to stretch his legs.
At first, engineers at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., the manufacturer of the Predator, tried landing the thing remotely by watching the aircraft from the ground, as hobbyists flying radio-controlled models do. "The attrition rate was much higher when we flew the aircraft externally for takeoff and landing," says Allen Isbell, a systems engineer with GA-ASI. "We found that involves a different skill set, and it was much more difficult to train someone to do that." With other UAV systems, a pilot stands outside during takeoff, flying the aircraft by remote control, then hands off to a pilot inside a control station, who monitors the systems during the cruise portion of the mission, then hands back to the pilot outside for landing. According to Isbell, there has sometimes been confusion over which pilot is actually in control. "So we migrated toward flying the system as one would a manned aircraft," he says.
To make that possible, pilots have to receive simultaneously the nose camera's video and telemetry reporting the aircraft's condition and attitude. The high data rates and wider bandwidth necessary for that transmission became available in the mid-1980s, when microwave communications matured. The pilot's inputs on the stick and throttle are transmitted to the aircraft through a C-band radio link. Once the Predator gets beyond the range of line-of-sight communications, pilot commands are sent by cable to a satellite transmitter/receiver that passes them via Ku-band to an Intelsat 602 communications satellite for transmission to the aircraft.
Even with high data rates, however, the aircraft can't send to the pilot that seat-of-the-pants feeling he gets as he flies: no rolling tendencies, no turbulence, no sense of the sink rate, no ground rush on landing. Pilots compensate by developing visual cues to get the aircraft on the ground smoothly: When the runway fills the bottom third of the screen, for example, you raise the nose to flare.
The telemetry will sometimes tell a pilot what he can't sense by watching the video. "When you're in the standard pattern," says Craig Babbitt, "you think the nose is down, but it's still climbing. So you push the nose down harder, but that's not a very comfortable feeling. I feel very confident with it, but I still don't trust it. It's so sensitive; five knots [of wind] is a big deal for this airplane."
There are other odd sensations to get used to with a UAV. When they're sitting in cockpits, pilots frequently lean into a banking turn, and they have been trained to "check left" when turning to a left heading, for example. One pilot found himself leaning and checking left and looking at the telephone on the wall next to him. He's gotten himself out of the habit but says: "I hope that when I get back to the cockpit, I'll pick that up again."
There's a lot of buzz around the Predator these days, partly because of the star status it enjoyed after Operation Allied Force, and almost every member of the two reconnaissance squadrons formed to operate it-the 11th, formed in 1996, and the 15th, reactivated a year later-talk enthusiastically about being part of something new, something that has "future" written all over it. Still, it's hard to imagine a pilot finishing up flight training and just praying for a spot on this aircraft-or any UAV, for that matter. They are creatures only an image analyst could love.
So the Air Force entices airmen to Predator duty with the promise of a plum assignment once they do time with the "drone." They call the Predator a drone when they want to insult it, usually after they have earned an insult themselves, as in "Ugh! Bad landing! Stupid drone." It is not, strictly speaking, a drone, which is a pilotless aircraft that can sustain level flight over a programmed course. A UAV is smarter; it can fly a programmed course and react to commands transmitted to it from a pilot on the ground. If the communications link with a Predator is lost, it flies a certain course for a period of time until the link can be re-established. When its time is up, it heads toward an uninhabited area to crash.
Currently 38 pilots fly the Predator, and the Air Force will reward them all in some way. When former B-52 pilot Captain Tom Reagan leaves the 15th, for example, he will get his dream job: flying the A-10 tank killer. KC-135 pilot Jobert Calimum is moving up to a KC-10. Captain Craig Babbitt, the C-130 pilot, will get a posting at a base closer to his family.
Some couldn't be cajoled. Pilots tapped for Predator duty can refuse the assignment and leave the Air Force, if their service commitments are shorter then the length of the assignment. Pilots are given seven days to decide.
"They lose a lot of pilots like that," says Tom Reagan. "I volunteered-but after three other pilots had seven-day opted out. We counted up in my training class, and we think 17 or 18 pilots left the Air Force."
Reagan seems genuinely excited by the UAV technology, but he also sees the need for the Air Force itself to adjust to the new system. He thinks the solution is to have a trainer-a supersonic T-38 Talon or a twin-turboprop Beech C-12-for Predator pilots to use at the Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field, part of Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, home of the 11th and 15th. "Our skills deteriorate while we're here," says Reagan. "We will have been out of an aircraft for two, two and a half years. And we don't accumulate flying gates [hours that count toward flight pay]. If we had a trainer to maintain our proficiency, we'd have better continuity and the Air Force wouldn't have the problem."
You can't please all of the pilots all of the time, as Lieutenant Colonel David Gibbs, the 11th's commander, sees it. "Every pilot will get a bad deal assignment eventually," he says. He offers the example of ALO, or air liaison officer, a pilot attached to a ground unit. The ALO doesn't fly; he advises the unit commander on air operations.
"I've flown F-111s and B-52s," says Gibbs, "and after flying a dying weapons system and an ancient one, I like the experience of flying something new." Besides, he points out, Nellis is about 40 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip. "Would you rather be an ALO crawling around in the mud with the army, living in a tent, or would you rather come to Vegas?," he says.
Captain Bayne Meeks hints that had he been eligible, he might have taken the seven-day option. Meeks was flying C-130s out of Pope Air Force Base near Fayetteville, North Carolina, for three and a half years, when the Predator called. "I knew it was time for me to move on at about the three-year point, but I had no idea that was lurking out there," he says, glowering at the UAV perched outside its hangar at Eagle Base. "I'm passionate about flying, and this is not passionate flying.
"I need some air under my butt," he mutters, walking off. "That's been my problem for a year and a half now." Yet Meeks would replay the ball camera video of his landing, over and over, watching for cues that would help perfect his landings.
For every disgruntled pilot hanging on for two years until he can get back in the air, there are ten sensor operators lovin' life. They operate the cameras and radar, and it's the sensor operator in the role of DEMPC-Data Exploitation, Mission Planning and Communication-who gets the "tasking," or daily list of targets from the operations center, plans the missions, and literally calls the shots.
"At first it was odd giving orders to pilots," says Heather Hunnel, "but they take it really well."
The DEMPC selects the sensors that will be used to "prosecute" a target, explains Senior Airman Jeff Fossum. "We go out [to the ground control station] before the flight to plot waypoints. We choose the sensor depending on the EEI-essential element of information." Intelligence collectors may want to know, for example, if armored vehicles at a storage depot have been operated recently. The DEMPC in that case would specify the use of the infrared camera, which sees the heat generated by the tanks' engines.
How long a target is prosecuted is up to the sensor operators. Trained as image analysts, they make sure the essential element of information has been captured. "Predator is a good background for crew coordination," says Lieutenant Colonel Steve Ricci, a navigator on an E-3 Sentry airborne warning and command system (AWACS) aircraft before taking command of the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron. (As a navigator, Ricci also had to have a civilian commercial pilot's license with an instrument rating in order to qualify to fly the Predator.) The sensor operators function in some ways like co-pilots, calling out airspeed, altitude, watching temperatures and warnings. Before landing, the sensor operator turns the ball camera to confirm the gear is down. "It's like any assignment on any multi-place aircraft," says Ricci.
Airman Junior Grade Jaime Penrod, from Lake Placid, Florida, likes her work on the Predator so much that she's thinking of seeking a job with its manufacturer once she's out of the Air Force. "I want to stay connected with this system," she says. She likes the immediacy of it-analyzing images as they're created rather than second hand, days or weeks after the action.
"I've never had anybody [in its target area] notice it's in the sky," she says. "Eventually everything will be unmanned. I bet we see it in our lifetimes."
General Jumper was recently asked in a public forum if the UAV was smarter than piloted aircraft. "No," he responded, "it is braver."
Eleven U.S. UAVs were lost to anti-aircraft fire and accidents during Operation Allied Force-21, including those flown by other NATO members-"and the pilots were last seen heading for the mess hall," as Gibbs blithely puts it. Endurance, flexibility, keen eyesight-good qualities all, but the biggest attraction in a UAV is the "U." No pilot is placed in harm's way, and the American people have made it clear that they like it like that. Casualties are unacceptable, and UAVs permit a whole new world of decision-making.
Tom Reagan, who flew B-52s before he flew Predators, could have been describing either mission when he told me, "We're going to fly at whatever altitude is necessary to avoid threats and get the job done." But only a UAV pilot could say, as he did: "Or it may come to a point where they don't want us to avoid threats, and that's the bonus with a UAV. If there's something that is time critical and they want pictures of something now because it will save lives, then we'll fly right into a threat. And so what if they shoot us down? No one gets hurt and we may find out some invaluable information."
So why stop at reconnaissance craft? In tests at the bombing ranges near Nellis, the Predator has already fired 100-pound AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank missiles. The tests had been delayed to give Pentagon lawyers time to review the requirements of the 1988 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which prohibits the deployment of unmanned weapons platforms with a range equal to the Predator's.
Regardless of whether the Predator will be among them, unmanned attack craft are on the way. This summer Boeing will begin flight tests of an unmanned combat air vehicle it is developing under a $131 million contract from the Air Force and the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. And Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works is developing a similar craft in a classified U.S. Air Force program-this one small enough to be air-launched by a mothership.
Meanwhile the 11th and 15th Reconnaissance squadrons continue to operate the Predator and learn how to use it. Members of the 15th have been deployed to Saudi Arabia to patrol southern Iraq, and both squadrons have flown in Red Flag, the combat training war games at Nellis. "We're still trying to figure out how we fit in," says the 11th's Dave Gibbs. "We've already proven ourselves," says Steve Ricci. "We've done that for five years. But how do we want to use this system? What do they want it to do?"
Like a trainer toweling off a boxer between rounds, Senior Airman Brian Cruickshank is wiping down a Predator that has just returned from a mission. He and the other maintainers in the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron say that "the robot," as some call it, is a lot easier to work on than some of the other aircraft they've kept flying. "This is almost all electrical work," says Cruikshank. "Swapping out black boxes."
When you talk to crew chiefs about their aircraft, it's not uncommon for them to lean up against it, slap its side, or run their hands along a wing. Nobody touches the Predator. Nobody has a story to tell about it. They all know what it does, how it works, that it's here to stay. But its place in air force culture is tentative; its mission not yet fully defined.