PredatorOct 4th, 2011 | By Submitted | Category: Editorials
By Joe Boyles
Public enemy number one — Anwar al-Awlaki is dead in Yemen, the victim of a Predator drone attack. The New Mexican-born terrorist who masterminded a series of “lone wolf” attacks against his native homeland is no longer a threat to our national security. Also dead is his webmaster, North Carolinian Samir Khan. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been dealt a heavy blow.
What is this modern weapon system that the Air Force and CIA are using so effectively in the skies over places like Yemen and Afghanistan?
The MQ-1B Predator is a medium altitude, long endurance unmanned aircraft. The Air Force has about 130 of the UAVs – unmanned aerial vehicles. They fly very slowly at about 20,000 feet for hours, ranging 750 miles from takeoff. The aircraft has a long wingspan and weighs just over a thousand pounds.
Initially the Predator was unarmed but that changed just prior to 9-11. The commander of Air Combat Command and future chief of staff General John Jumper challenged the UAV office to hang AGM-114 Hellfire missiles on the drone to be able to remotely attack targets of opportunity. I served with Johnny Jumper at RAF Bentwaters in 1973-4. He was a very imaginative tactician so I’m not surprised that he initiated the idea of an armed UAV.
The Hellfire missile has been around for about thirty years. It was developed by the Army for use by attack helicopters but primarily tested on Eglin’s ranges in the western panhandle of Florida. It is small (5 feet long and 100 pounds) so it is the ideal weapon to hang under the wing of the Predator. The rocket motor quickly propels the missile to a speed of mach 1.2 before it strikes the target, usually from a distance of five miles or less.
This is a smart weapon, primarily guided by a laser designator. The CEP (circular error probable) is measured in inches meaning that half the shots will hit with a foot of their aim point from several miles away. The kinetic force of the hit alone will destroy anything but heavy armor and the 20 pound warhead multiplies the killing power. The vehicle that Awlaki and Khan were driving was totally destroyed – they probably never had any warning that they were targeted or what hit them.
The team that flies and employs the Predator consists of three operators located hundreds of miles away from the scene in a virtual cockpit. The pilot is flying the aircraft from an armchair in front of a console. Next to him is a sensor operator who searches for targets with a variety of sensors, locks on to them, and fires the Hellfire. Feeding the sensor operator information is an intelligence specialist who uses a variety of sources to separate friendlies from the enemy and target the bad guys. It is a very effective combat team and the face of modern air warfare.
One aspect about the intelligence in the Awlaki attack – apparently, the Yemenis provided key information that led to finding this particular convoy and the subsequent attack.
When I think about UAVs like the Predator, there is a sense of nostalgia of the “good old days” when air knights charged into the fray, turning their fighter at high G in a massive, fluid dogfight. But technology moves on; you either embrace it or get run over! The argument for systems like the Predator is overwhelming: it is lightweight and cheap; it can hang over the battlefield for hours; it is nearly impossible to see and hear; it can strike with pinpoint accuracy and devastating effects; and the enemy never sees it coming. Whoosh – it’s over; bang –they’re dead.
President Obama has emphasized this type of remote attack since becoming commander-in-chief and the results have decimated our enemies. Many on the left, in fact his political base, are criticizing the president for ignoring the constitutional rights of due process for American citizens like Awlaki and Khan, but I don’t see it that way. Here’s my view: these fellows were enemy combatants in a war zone and they were attacked. If they had been wounded in the attack, we would have captured them, but since they are dead – case closed.
Let’s not forget that the Predator is a very effective answer to the enemy tactic of the homicide bomber and remotely detonated improvised explosive device. They have their trump cards and we have ours. It is a brave new world we are entering. The Predator is only the beginning. Welcome to the world of modern warfare.