Downing the Drones

By David Abel  |  The Boston Globe  |  6/10/1999

WASHINGTON - If it isn't their slow glide over enemy positions, or their inability to evade ground fire, it's probably the drone's buzzing that made it such an easy target.

While only two NATO aircraft went down in more than 33,000 missions since the strikes against Yugoslavia began March 24, at least 22 allied unmanned aerial vehicles crisscrossing the skies over Kosovo in a fraction of the missions fell victim to either enemy fire or mechanical failure. That includes a dozen US drones.

The small, remote-controlled aircraft have been where no pilot has dared to go - sometimes only a few thousand feet above entrenched Serbian forces. And while sometimes the 17- to 27-foot-long planes did not make it back to their bases, they often relayed enough information to have piloted aircraft return and avenge their sacrifice.

"Actually, I'm surprised they held together as well as they did," said John Sundberg, the deputy manager of the Army's unmanned aerial vehicle program in Redstone, Ala. "They're designed to be used and abused."

The drones, which range in cost from nearly $1 million for the Navy's low-flying Pioneer to as much as $3.5 million for the Air Force's high-altitude Predator, have been used over Kosovo for a variety of missions, including aiding pilots in other aircraft to aim precision-guided bombs, photographing troop movements and assessing battle damage.

But the current lot of drones are relatively primitive devices, sent off by crews with little experience using them in combat.

The significantly increased use of the drones, which are essentially flying cameras and radio relays, probably contributed to their rate of malfunction, said Daryl Davidson, the executive director for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Washington. In addition to downed French and German drones, the Navy has lost two Pioneers and the Air Force has lost three Predators.

"They are being used in situations that are new, and that adds a lot of stress," Davidson said. "There are going to be problems, and we are learning valuable lessons. But it's not much news when they're shot down, unlike when a pilot is captured or three soldiers are taken prisoner."

Unmanned aircraft were designed for missions too risky for pilots. Although they have been around in various forms since World War I, drones did not play a serious role in the US military until the Vietnam War.

By the mid-1970s, unmanned Air Force planes flew more than 3,000 reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam and China. With that experience and after the Israelis' noted use of drones to destroy Syrian air defenses in Lebanon, the Pentagon launched its first modern unmanned aircraft, the Pioneer.

The new drone, which has been used in the Gulf War, over Bosnia, and in NATO's conflict with Serbia, now plays third fiddle to the more advanced Hunter and Predator.

While each carries a set of video cameras and infrared equipment, the Predator doubles what the Hunter can carry and multiplies by four times the Pioneer's lift capacity. Moreover, the Predator can stay aloft for more than 20 hours, whereas, the Pioneer must return to base within five hours and the Hunter within 11 hours.

Still, the more advanced drones do not compare to the sophisticated unmanned aircraft the Pentagon is now designing. Future drones, which will range in expense from $300,000 for an Army field scout to $10 million for an Air Force plane that provides a "god's view" of the battlefield, are likely to employ the lessons learned from Kosovo.