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Sunday Times (London) November 11, 2001

Battle over orders for unmanned aircraft

By Garth Alexander

THE American propaganda leaflets dropped on Afghanistan bear a clear and menacing message. One photograph is a close-up of the licence plate on the car of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader. Another shows Omar in the cross-hairs of a rifle, with the caption "We Are Watching!" It is not an idle threat. Unmanned planes, called drones, are filling the skies over Afghanistan, relaying images around the clock to American bases in neighbouring countries where commanders are able to monitor every enemy movement. The drones' high-resolution cameras can identify a car by its licence plate or a terrorist by his face.

Even more worrying for the enemy is the recent arrival of souped-up drones armed with Hellfire anti-tank missiles. Experts predict that, in the not-too-distant future, cheap and risk-free drones will be able to identify and destroy targets without prompting by human controllers.

The making of drones is still a small and experimental business, and much of the detailed surveillance in Afghanistan is being done by Boeing 707s and satellites. But military contractors are rushing out increasingly versatile and powerful machines, hoping they will attract large military orders. The war in Afghanistan is the first in which different drones are competing for attention.

Merrill Lynch's Byron Callan says: "Ucavs (unmanned combat air vehicles) are potentially the most potent long-term competition for the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)."

He predicts future sales could have an impact on the $ 200 billion (Pounds 137billion) JSF order awarded by the Pentagon two weeks ago to Lockheed Martin and its partners Northrop Grumman and Britain's BAE Systems. The piloted fighter may eventually become obsolete.

The Predator, made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, is the older of the two drones operating in Afghanistan. It was used in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq in the 1990s with mixed results. Of the 60 so far delivered to the military, 19 have been lost. Seven were shot down and the rest crashed. Air-force officers explain they are difficult to land and their wings tend to ice up.

Although the propeller-driven Predators are slow, travelling at about 140 miles an hour, they can linger over a site for up to 14 hours while transmitting photographs and video images. The biggest advantage is that they are cheap, costing just $ 3m each. They have also proved surprisingly adaptable, having been successfully modified to carry guided missiles and attack Taliban convoys.

The jet-powered Global Hawk, produced by Northrop Grumman, is a faster, more durable machine that flies at 65,000ft (more than twice the altitude of the Predator) and can stay aloft for 30 hours. It is a gawky, windowless bird that can take radar and infrared pictures at night and through clouds. But analysts say it needs refining and they do not know how well it will perform.

Still at an experimental stage is Boeing's X-45, a Y-shaped Ucav that can carry up to 3,000 pounds of bombs and missiles and is scheduled to make its first flight next year. It is a stealth fighter, designed to avoid radar detection and to take out anti-aircraft weapons. George Muellner, who heads Boeing's Phantom Works, which is developing the prototype for the American air force, says the X-45 could be rushed into production as early as 2003 if the Pentagon pushed it.

Boeing is also working on a pilotless high-speed attack helicopter, called the Canard.

John Pike, a defence analyst at Globalsecurity.org, a defence think tank in Alexandria, Virginia, says: "The great advantage of the drones is that they are cheap. Total Ucav spending is less than buying one new destroyer every year - and the navy buys four destroyers a year. They cost millions rather than the tens of millions for a manned fighter."

They also cost as little as a third as much to operate and do not put the life of an expensive and highly trained pilot at risk.

Christopher Hellman at the Center for Defense Information says: "Congress has mandated that by 2010 one-third of all new air-strike platforms should be unmanned. The trouble is that the military has a traditional bias for platforms with pilots, so it spends on them and not on drones. But Congress can change that."

Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, defence stocks have soared in anticipation of a surge in military orders. Within a month Raytheon had leapt 46%, Alliant Techsystems 42%, Northrop Grumman 31% and Lockheed Martin 28%.

Although prices have fallen slightly since then and no significant military orders have yet been placed, analysts are predicting the first big increase in military spending since the end of the cold war.

Congressional leaders are already pushing for new purchases of military versions of the Boeing 767 jetliner for use as airborne refuelling tankers and surveillance aircraft. The American air force has asked Lockheed to speed up development of a ground-attack version of the F-22 stealth fighter. Raytheon expects more orders for its Tomahawk cruise missiles and other guided weapons.

Defence contractors, which are emerging from a particularly lean period when they were forced into mergers and had to take on huge debt, know they are competing for high stakes. If they fail to deliver they could be forced out of business. Since Boeing lost the JSF contract to Lockheed Martin, some analysts have suggested it might withdraw from making military planes altogether.

Winning a contract not only gives a manufacturer a huge upfront payment but also the possibility of a steady revenue stream for decades to come.

Last week B-52 bombers, which first saw action over Vietnam 35 years ago, began carpet-bombing Afghanistan.

"They will probably be around for another 30 or more years," says Pike. By then, Boeing's work-horse will be more than 70 years old. It may still be doing combat duty at 100.

That, of course, presumes piloted aircraft will survive the robot revolution. The idea of a plane deciding which targets to hit, without any human participation, disturbs some experts.

Glenn Buchan, a defence analyst at the Rand Corporation and author of a classified study on Ucavs, told Business Week that the technology had "notoriously underachieved" in simulated combat. He said: "It's an extraordinarily challenging and controversial issue. We're not very far along."

The technology needed to distinguish between a school bus and a tank - or enemy troops and friendly forces - is complex and unlikely to be mastered for at least a decade.

Hellman says: "Drones are still in their infancy. We are at the same stage as pilots in the first world war when they first took grenades up with them and threw them out of the cockpit - that was the beginning of the bomber."

If manned American planes can twice mistakenly bomb an International Red Cross building in Kabul - as they have done already - one hates to think what mischief a befuddled drone could do.


Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Limited