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Military UAVs: Up in the Sky, an Unblinking Eye

The whole art of war consists of getting at what is on the other side of the hill," said the Duke of Wellington, conqueror of Napoleon at Waterloo. In the murky kind of fight that marks modern warfare against terrorists and guerrillas, knowing what's on the other side of the hill—or inside a building—takes on a whole new urgency and meaning. Lt. Col. Scott Williams, who leads a unit of Apache helicopters in Baghdad, is in the business of "servicing" targets, by which he means anything from blowing up a building with a Hellfire missile to helping local police make arrests. He must know when to shoot—and when not to.

Williams recently spoke to a NEWSWEEK reporter after leading an airborne foray into Sadr City, where a drone—a pilotless craft generically known as a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle)—had found a rocket emplacement and transmitted images back to the ground commander. Insurgents had attacked the Green Zone with rockets from the site and retreated into a nearby apartment block. Williams and his fellow Apache pilots swooped in for the kill, but pulled back. The UAV—known as a Shadow—had spotted children going in and out of the building. "We knew the bad guys were there," Williams said. "We saw them walk in and out, we saw them place the [missiles] … We could have serviced that building and we probably could have killed four or five of the guys that were involved in it.

But the decision was made at the command level—because of the women and children who were potentially in that building—not to service the target." Instead, the Apaches took out the rocket-launch site and a few of the men around it.

In the kind of counterinsurgency struggle fought in Iraq and in troubled places around the globe, winning hearts and minds is more important than body counts. There is no technological silver bullet that will help America win these wars. But in the cat-and-mouse game played by insurgents who mix freely with civilians, the ability to loiter over a target, to watch closely with cameras before the bombs begin to fall, is crucial. American forces call this "persistent stare capability" or "the unblinking eye"—and only drones have it.

The UAV is the "smart bomb" of the Iraq War, the latest turn in the unending offense-defense spiral that characterizes the history of warfare. Army units searching and fighting house-to-house are using hundreds of drones, some of them as small as a model airplane (the Raven), to track enemy movements. Patrols regularly use them to scout out the route ahead. Commanders position them over well-traveled roads to keep an eye out for insurgents planting IEDs—a task once performed by soldiers sitting in their Humvees for hours on end. The Army is even working on drones that can detect IEDs by seeing where the earth has been recently disturbed. Army drones alone flew more than 46,450 hours in March.

In complicated urban street fights like the recent battles to pacify Sadr City, UAVs have even taken the lead, seeking out targets so that U.S. troops didn't have to enter the area. They're the sharp end of a vast and invisible infrastructure, involving satellites and GPS and communications channels able to handle gigabytes of information every second—a network that only the U.S. military possesses. Images from a drone can be relayed instantly to a laptop with the ground unit, a command center located miles away, and (for birds like the Predator) to imagery analysts as far away as Germany or Nevada. Sometimes Apache pilots like Williams are called in to strike; other times the American gunners and bombardiers who carry out the hits are thousands of miles away, safe from rocket fire.

This revolution in unmanned warfare has been a long time coming, but it's been spurred by the unique demands of Iraq. Even in the first years after the fall of Baghdad, drones were little more than a cool toy or a battlefield accessory. Special Operations Forces used them for high-priority missions, but they were not considered essential to the war effort. Demand has grown from the ground up, dramatically, as commanders and grunts recognized their usefulness. "We can see into an alleyway, see teams organizing an attack," says Lt. Col. Paul V. Marnon, a battalion commander for the 3CAB. Marnon flies Apache attack helicopters and gets most of his recon and targeting information from the unmanned craft. Over the past two months, he says, 90 percent of his "kills" have been aided by UAVs.

The inability to deploy UAVs fast enough to meet the demand has been a source of frustration to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Flying down to Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama late last month, Gates scribbled this paragraph into a prepared speech: "I've been wrestling for months to get more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets into the theater. Because people were stuck in the old ways of doing things, it's been like pulling teeth." Gates pointedly attacked what he calls "Next-War-itis," the propensity of the Defense establishment to prepare for some future Big War—a massive, high-tech conflict against a rival nation-state, tank against tank, ship against ship—rather than coping with the real, messy wars of the present. Besieged with frantic requests from commanders on the ground for more UAVs, Gates recently approved a $240 million boost in spending on reconnaissance surveillance craft, including a stopgap plan to hire private contractors to fly light aircraft, specially equipped with cameras and other sensors, over Iraq and Afghanistan.

The harsh necessities of war and an impatient civilian leader prodding the balky brass—that has been the history of UAV development for decades. Pilotless drones have always been a bastard step-child of the military, with the institutional bias favoring "manned platforms." (The best way to advance in any service is to see combat—in the Air Force, it's the flyboys who get ahead.) The history of the UAV is deliciously quirky, and a reminder that innovation often comes from mavericks operating outside the military-industrial complex. The story really begins in a factory in southern California in the middle of World War II.

Marilyn Monroe was only the second most-important discovery at the Van Nuys plant of the Radioplane Co. in 1944. The young Norma Jean Dougherty was working at the plant near Los Angeles when a photographer for the Army magazine Yank spotted her, photographed her and told her she might have a future as a model. Radioplane's real contribution to the war effort was the drone—unmanned aerial craft that could be steered by radio signals.

Initially, the drones were used for antiaircraft target practice. In the 1950s, Gen. Curtis LeMay, founding father of the Strategic Air Command—America's first nuclear strike force—acquired drones as decoys to protect his B-52 bombers from Soviet air defenses. Then around 1960, a young Japanese-American engineer named Norman Sakamato began pushing a bright new idea: that the drones be equipped with a camera in the nose and used for aerial reconnaissance and espionage. (It is one of the many ironies of the history of the UAV that the man some call the "godfather" of drones spent the first two years of World War II with his family in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona.)

At first, the military did not seem much interested. But then a manned U-2 spy plane was shot down by Soviet-made anti-aircraft missiles over Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis, pushing the superpowers to the brink. Suddenly, the Pentagon took notice; Sakamato's company, Ryan-Teledyne, was soon awash in contracts for a drone called the Firebee. By the Vietnam War, more than 1,000 Firebees were flying over enemy territory on photo-reconnaissance missions or jamming radars.

Typically, though, after the war ended, the drone was nearly grounded by military bureaucracy and service parochialism. ICBMs were supplanting B-52s in the cold-war arsenal, and the rest of the Air Force never warmed to the concept of unmanned vehicles, preferring to keep a "man in the loop"—and ensure flying time for aviators. The Army plunged into procurement hell, developing a drone with so many bells and whistles that it barely got off the ground. Ill conceived from the start, the Aquila needed hundreds of tons of backup equipment, which required an hour to set up or take down. Crashing every 20 hours or so, its costs climbing to $3 million a copy, the Aquila was canceled in 1987 after burning through $1 billion.

While the Americans fussed and dithered, the Israelis moved quickly to develop cheap and reliable drones. The impetus was, as usual, the exigencies of combat—Israel was flummoxed by Egypt's Soviet-built air defenses in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Helped, in part, by studying the design of an American-made drone that crashed and washed up on its shores, Israel developed a topflight secret drone program. President Reagan's Secretary of the Navy John Lehman and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. P. X. Kelley were the first to discover how far the Israelis had progressed. On visits to Israel in the mid-'80s, Lehman was allowed to pilot a drone, and Kelley was presented with a kind of home video of his trip, shot by a circling drone.

Impressed, Lehman bypassed regulations to acquire Israeli drones called Pioneers to fly off ships and help them direct their guns. Noisy as a lawn mower, the Pioneer was scarily effective in the 1991 gulf war, when Iraqi soldiers learned to fear the barrage of missiles that would quickly follow its buzz. One Pioneer shot footage of a squadron of Iraqi soldiers waving their shirts in the air, likely the first unit ever to surrender to a drone.

When fighting in the Balkans broke out in the early 1990s, Jim Woolsey, director of the CIA, was in a jam. He did not have many (if any) spies on the ground. Desperate for imagery from Bosnia, he asked the Air Force what it would take to get a drone for the spooks. The answer, he recalls, was "six years and $500 million." Then Woolsey remembered a secret UAV project run out of the Pentagon's civilian Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency using the design skills of a brilliant Israeli expat named Abe Karem. Woolsey tracked down Karem in California. Karem told him his craft, code-named Amber, had been cut from the budget by the Army in 1990 and was now lying in pieces in a California warehouse. What would it take, Woolsey asked, to get it flying again? "Six months and $5 million," he recalls Karem's saying. (Karem says the story is a bit more complicated, but Woolsey's version is essentially correct.) The stripped-down craft that emerged was called the Gnat. Woolsey was so pleased by the videos it took that he arranged to have them piped back to a TV set in his office in Langley, Va. He would amaze congressmen with private showings. (Among the lawmakers who enthusiastically backed the Gnat was Charlie Wilson, the character played by Tom Hanks in the movie "Charlie Wilson's War.") The drone was back in business. In the late 1990s the Gnat evolved into the Predator, a drone that could not only take pictures but fire missiles.

Even that didn't happen overnight. For years the CIA and Air Force squabbled over control and funding of the project, missing the chance to use a Predator as an offensive weapon against terrorists in hiding. A crucial advocate for the project was Gen. John Jumper, who was commander of U.S. air forces in Europe during the Kosovo conflict. He was exasperated that the early Predators didn't have GPS. (Jumper is recalled by a colleague remarking about a recon photo of a Serbian tank hiding in a forest: "That's a very nice tank. Where the f––– is it?") When Jumper returned to the United States to run Air Combat Command in 2000, he made a new push to get a weapon under the Predator's wings.

The only missile small enough for the task was the Hellfire, an Army antitank weapon. But the missile was designed to fire over trees, so its initial trajectory was upward; it had to be rejiggered to shoot down. Later it was found that the warhead wasn't powerful enough. (In one instance, recalled by the then Air Force Secretary James Roche, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld demanded to know why after-action video showed Qaeda militants staggering alive out of a supposedly demolished bunker.) Because the weapon was designed to cripple tanks, it had a very focused blast. So designers added a sleeve around the warhead that would fragment upon detonation into thousands of flying razor blades. The first operational target for the new weapon was a Qaeda operative in Yemen, riding with five colleagues in an SUV on Nov. 5, 2003. After-action video showed that the only identifiable item in the remains of the blast was the vehicle's oil pan.

The Predator is the UAV most civilians are familiar with, but only it and a newer craft called a Reaper—equipped with four Hellfires and two 500-pound bombs—are armed. The CIA and Air Force control these drones, using them to take out high-value targets—terrorist leaders—in remote corners of Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as in Iraq. The Air Force guides its Predators (as well as the high-flying Global Hawks, which can stay aloft for more than 20 hours watching a battlefield) from Air Force bases in Nevada and California—more than 8,000 miles from the killing zone. They use only qualified fighter or bomber pilots, who lead a somewhat surreal life. An Air Force pilot at Creech can wake up at his suburban house in the morning, drive his kids to school, go to work, kill a terrorist with a Predator, pick up his kids from soccer practice, and fall asleep in front of the tube … all in a day's work.

The vast majority of the roughly 1,500 drones flying in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, are much smaller craft, controlled by soldiers and Marines. Not long ago, a NEWSWEEK reporter watched as Sgt. Lenzy Schneider, 24, launched a Raven UAV from the roof of a building in a forward operating base near the town of Balad. Ravens are about the size of large model airplanes, with a wingspan of three feet. (The drone is sometimes mistaken for a bird when it is high in the sky.) Battery-powered, made of Kevlar and Styrofoam, they weigh less than five pounds and cost a mere $35,000—about one twentieth the price of a Predator. They're launched the same way a child might send a model plane skyward—with a flip of the wrist. "Anyone can fly it, even me," says Schneider, grinning. A two-week course is all a soldier needs to master the fundamentals of the Raven, although the Army has created a new classification—15W—for pilots who control larger drones.

Sgt. Chris Hermann, 24, flies his Shadow—one of those larger craft, launched by catapult and capable of staying airborne all day long—from a comfortable chair inside a trailer at a forward operating base outside Baghdad. He controls the bird with a large trackball, a hemispherical device built into his computer console. "Yeah, middle of the desert, aircon and a padded seat, there are worse jobs in Iraq," he says. The job is important but not all that challenging, he says. "We all joke about it," he told a NEWSWEEK reporter. "A monkey can do this job, this bird flies itself, it lands itself." When the weather is bad and the Shadow can't fly, Hermann and his buddies will get together and play Battlefield 2 or Call of Duty 4 or The Underground. Compared with those videogames, Hermann says, flying a Shadow is "kind of like old Atari, pretty basic, point and click."

Army soldiers don't do the shooting themselves; for that they call in Apaches or F-16s. But Sgt. Tim Bush, Schneider's partner, says Iraqi insurgents have learned to fear the drones. "They hear some sort of air noise and they don't know exactly what it is, but they know it's associated with 'my buddy getting killed'," says Bush. "Anything that makes them uneasy makes me happy." Unfortunately no airstrike is entirely precise, and drone-related hits have most likely killed dozens of civilians in both Iraq and Afghanistan. An Iraqi correspondent for NEWSWEEK was recently taken to sites in Sadr City where, it was claimed, women and children had been killed by errant UAV strikes. In the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, village mothers have been known to use the threat of a Predator attack to get their children to behave: "Obey or the 'buzz' will come after you."

That's a problem in fighting a counterinsurgency, where winning over the population is key. On the one hand, the coverage provided by UAVs allows ground troops to travel more freely and openly, to get out of their Humvees and interact with civilians. But the act of killing is becoming ever more remote—even robotic. Northrop-Grumman is even working on a $635 million contract to develop an unmanned bomber for the Navy. The X-47B will be the size of an F-14, but designed to fly from an aircraft carrier—with folding wings that would allow it to fit in carrier elevators. For now, this is just a "proof of concept" program, meant to demonstrate what is and isn't possible. But the first prototype is due next year.

As any military man can tell you, no war can be won from armchairs in Nevada. Soldiers will still have to confront the enemy (or, more precisely, try to figure out who is the real enemy) and partake in the endless trial of trying to win hearts and minds without winding up in a coffin. But with UAVs overhead, soldiers do not have to feel like they are sitting ducks for every ambusher or bombmaker. As they peer up at that … bird? … it's the insurgents who have to worry.

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