- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2008

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The military’s reliance on unmanned aircraft that can watch, hunt and sometimes kill insurgents has soared, with drones clocking more than 500,000 hours in the air, largely in Iraq, the Associated Press has learned.

And new Defense Department figures obtained by the AP show that the Air Force more than doubled its monthly use of drones between January and October, forcing it to take pilots from the air and shifting them to remote flying duty to meet part of the demand.

The dramatic increase in the development and use of drones across the armed services reflects what will be an even more aggressive effort over the next 25 years, according to the new report.

The jump in Iraq coincided with the buildup of U.S. forces this summer, as the military swelled its ranks to quell the violence in Baghdad. But Pentagon officials said that even as troops begin to slowly come home this year, the use of Predators, Global Hawks, Shadows and Ravens will not likely slow.

“I think right now the demand for the capability that the unmanned system provides is only increasing,” said Army Col. Bob Quackenbush, deputy director for Army Aviation. “Even as the surge ends, I suspect the deployment of the unmanned systems will not go down, particularly for larger systems.”

For some Air Force pilots, that means climbing out of the cockpit and heading to places such as Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where they can remotely fly the Predators, one of the larger and more sophisticated unmanned aircraft.

About 120 Air Force pilots were recently transferred to staff the drones to keep pace with demands, the Air Force said.

Some National Guard members also were recruited to staff the flights. And more will be doing that in the coming months, as the Air Force adds bases where pilots can remotely fly the aircraft. Locations include North Dakota, Texas, Arizona and California, and some already are operating.

Increased military operations across Iraq last summer triggered greater use of the drones and an escalating need for more of the systems — from the Pentagon’s key hunter-killer, the Predator, to the surveillance Global Hawks and the smaller, cheaper Ravens.

In one recent example of what they can do, a Predator caught sight of three militants firing mortars at U.S. forces in November in Balad, Iraq. The drone fired an air-to-ground missile, killing the three, according to video footage the Air Force released.

Air Force officials said Predator flights steadily increased last year, from about 2,000 hours in January to more than 4,300 hours in October. Flights are expected to continue to increase when hours are calculated for November and December, because the number of combat air patrols increased from about 14 per day to 18.

“The demand far exceeds all of the Defense Department’s ability to provide [these] assets,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Gurgainous, deputy director of the Air Force’s unmanned aircraft task force. “And as we buy and field more systems, you will see it continue to go up.”

Use of the high-tech surveillance and reconnaissance Global Hawk also has jumped, as the Air Force moved from two to three systems on the battlefield.

“I think it has to do with the type of warfare we’re engaged in — it’s heavy into intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,” Lt. Gurgainous said. “This war requires a lot of hunting high-value targets.”

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