Flying Blind, The Problem with the Predator

by Jeffrey St. Clair

Few things are as predicatable as the excited bleats of Pentagon flacks touting the killing efficacy of new weapons systems every time the US begins a military operation. During the Gulf War, the press was dazzled with reports of smart bombs and Scud-blasting Patriot missiles. The bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998 saw the Pentagon and representatives from Boeing boast about the advent of new cruise missiles. The war on Serbia witnessed the use of Stealth bombers and the Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, which the Pentagon portrayed as being the unsung hero of the Kosovo air war.

It is equally predictable that many of these claims fall on their face after the bombing ceases and a final assessment is down. Those precision-guided weapons were laughably inaccurate. The Scud missiles launched by Iraq evaded the Patriot interceptors with ease. The stealth bomber has proved to be so thin skinned that in cold weather it performs with all the agility of a flying ice cube.

Now comes the Predator UAV, which the media, clinging to every word of Pentagon press releases, has hailed as a “revolutionary” reconnaissance aircraft of the future. In recent days, the press has begun to speak of this aircraft, now puttering over Afghanistan, as the key to the war on the Taliban. ABC News even went so far as to predict that it “may turn out to be Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare.”

The Predator drones are 27 feet long with a wingspan of approximately 49 feet. They cruise along at the leisurely pace of about 84 miles an hour, scouting for targets. The planes are made at a $25 million per copy pricetag by the San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which describes its creation as the Pentagon’s “eyes in the sky.”

But a newly unearthed report by Thomas Christie, the Pentagon’s top systems testing officer tells a much different story. Christie is director of Department of Defense’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation division. According to Christie’s report, “the system’s limitations have a substantial negative impact on the Predator’s ability to conduct its missions,” and that “poor target location accuracy, ineffective communications, and limits imposed by relatively benign weather, including rain, negatively impact missions such as strike support, combat search and rescue, area search, and continuous coverage.”

In sum, this revolutionary new weapon doesn’t work right when confronted with wind, cool temperatures, rain, snow or cloud cover-a resum? of incompetence that makes the B-2 bomber look like a model of efficiency by comparision and certainly must make bin Laden and his harem sleep sounder at night. Christie’s devastating report sat dormant for months until was unearthed by one of the Pentagon’s biggest pains in the neck, the Project on Government Oversight. The leaked report can be viewed at POGO’s excellent website.

Once these planes go into full-scale production there’s often no turning back regardless of how badly the machines perform on the battlefield. That’s why the Pentagon and its bevy of contractors, such as General Atomics, work so assiduously to keep the nose of the Pentagon press corps trained to the hype about the plane’s potential, while keeping its performance record buried away.

But by nearly any standard the Predator is a dreadful product. According to the Pentagon’s report and insider information:

Since 1995, an estimated 17 of the 50 Predator aircraft built for the U.S. Air Force have crashed during testing and another 5 are believed to have been shot down on military missions. At $25 million per Predator, hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost during testing alone. Director Thomas Christie, Operational Test and Evaluation, wrote in the report that the Predator is “not operationally effective or suitable” because the aircraft has several critical limitations. When flying in the rain, Predator missions are negatively impacted in a number of ways including poor target location accuracy and ineffective communications, according to the Pentagon’s report. There is considerable concern that the Predator is highly vulnerable to being shot down because it flies at a slow speed and at low altitudes. It also cannot perform its mission while flying at night, according to the Pentagon’s report.

Ultimately, the report concludes, “DOT&E finds the system to be not operationally suitable…because of the serious deficiencies in reliability, maintainability and human factors design.”

“When the national media fails in their investigative responsibilities, it is American service men and women, as well as American taxpayers, who suffer the consequences,” said Danielle Brian, Executive Director of POGO. CP

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