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Monday, January 30, 2006

Pentagon to bolster drone bomber spending

ISN SECURITY WATCH (31/01/06) - The US Defense Department is increasing spending on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) such as the Predator used on bombing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and for targeting high-profile terror suspects.

That's the word according to the Quadrennial Defense Review, a Pentagon report on the state of US defenses and recommendations for their improvement issued every four years.

Although the report is not scheduled for release to the public until 6 February, ISN Security Watch received an advanced copy of the document, which calls for an acceleration of the acquisition of Predator UAVs and Global Hawks, another unmanned bombing plane.

The review also says the Special Operations Command of the Air Force will include a new squadron solely for the operation of UAVs.

Although Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cautioned reporters last week not to place too much stock in a review since it is still subject to revisions, the Pentagon has already shown recent signs that it has committed to adding more UAVs to its arsenal.

Last week, the Pentagon reportedly ordered another five MQ-9 Predators fitted with Hellfire missiles commonly used in attacks on terror suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Predator's manufacturer General Atomics calls the MQ-9 a "hunter-killer" with a 14-missile capacity.

And earlier this month, news sources said the military was considering a phased decommissioning of the U-2 spy plane in 2007. The U-2, built by Lockheed Martin, will likely be replaced by the Global Hawk UAV recently developed by Northrop Grumman.

Military expert and Globalsecurity.org Director John E. Pike said the retirement of the U-2 was still not a certainty, though likely "for several reasons as the plane - in use for more than four decades - was "getting up in years".

Some experts have questioned the Pentagon's decision to rely more and more on UAVs, which have limited targeting and maneuvering capabilities compared to manned bombing aircraft.

"These things have limitations - they're not wonder-weapons," Winslow Wheeler, Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, told ISN Security Watch.

Resolution of Predator imagery taken from any higher than 10,000 feet is far inferior to images taken by manned aircraft, noted Wheeler.

"At that altitude, it can barely tell a car from a truck," he said. "The image gets fuzzy real quick … and that's an issue."

Supporters of manned aircraft also note that piloted planes can fly at much higher altitudes - 90,000 feet compared to 50,000 feet for the Predator - and can alter its mission in mid-flight, while the unmanned vehicle maintains a strict flight plan.

Despite calls from detractors advising the Pentagon to not depend so heavily on UAVs just yet, "the Defense Department is clearly on that course", said Wheeler.

“The danger is [with UAVs] you expect that it can do certain things for you, then when it can't, you've already become dependent on it," he warned.

The Pentagon's decision to acquire more UAVs comes in the wake of protests in Pakistan that followed a failed attempted to kill top al-Qaida operative Ayman al-Zawahiri on 13 January.

Some 18 people, including women and children, were killed in the attack. Al-Zawahiri was not harmed.

Al-Qaida's No. 2 man released a video on Monday shown on al-Jazeera referencing the attack mentioning the Pakistani village targeted by the Predator.

"Their claim was to target this poor man and four of my brothers. The whole world discovered the lies as the Americans fight Islam and the Muslims," says al-Zawahiri.
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