- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2001

An unmanned U.S. spy plane failed to return to base yesterday from a mission over Iraq, and Baghdad claimed it had shot down its first American aircraft since the allies began patrolling two no-fly zones after the 1991 Gulf war.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military options in the Gulf, said from MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., it was not clear whether the RQ-1 Predator had crashed or been shot down.
"It went out quick," said a military official. He said the sudden loss of contact with the remote-control vehicle lends some credence to Iraq's claim.
A senior defense official said no Air Force Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) early-warning aircraft was on patrol at the time. If it had been, the AWACS' powerful radar could have tracked the drone's flight path and determined if hostile fire had brought it down.
"All we know is, we lost contact with it at a certain point fairly early into its flight," this official said. "It's supposed to have an automatic return and it didn't come back, and the Iraqis obviously have found it. Whether they shot it down or not, we still don't know.
"We didn't have much up in the air at the time," said the official, referring to other coalition aircraft. He said the principal mission of the 950-pound Predator has been to look for anti-aircraft sites in thickly defended areas.
"The whole idea is to use them in high-risk areas," added the military official. "If you lose it, you don't lose a pilot. It's designed as an attrition-type aircraft. You expect to lose some."
Officials said no attempt will be made to recover the Predator. The $1.5 million Air Force plane does not contain cutting-edge technology and will be of little benefit to Iraq, the officials said.
The Predator's satellite links enable its cameras and radars to relay live images of potential targets and enemy operations.
The Predator is an easier target for Iraq's anti-aircraft artillery or missiles than is a higher-flying supersonic fighter. The drone flies at subsonic speeds of up to 140 mph, at altitudes below 25,000 feet.
The reconnaissance plane was discovered missing at 2 a.m. EDT yesterday as it conducted a daylight mission. U.S. officials seemed to shrug off losing a relatively inexpensive drone, saying the important fact to remember was that Iraq had failed for a decade to down a manned plane.
Baghdad's propaganda machine exploited the mishap nonetheless. Its state-run news agency told citizens that the Predator had been shot down near Basra, Iraq's industrial port city where thousands of Iraqi troops fled when the allies liberated Kuwait in March 1991.
"Iraqi air defenses have shot an American reconnaissance plane coming from Kuwait territory," the Iraqi news agency said.
Iraqi television showed pictures of what it said was a downed U.S. plane. Pentagon officials said they could not determine positively from those images if the depicted wreckage was the missing Predator.
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has put a bounty on the head of any allied pilot shot down over his territory. Earlier this summer, Iraq fired at a high-flying U-2 surveillance plane. The surface-to-air missile flew so close that its explosion rattled the U-2's crew.
The Predator, which played a significant intelligence role during NATO's 1999 bombing of Serbia, has become a more active player for U.S. forces enforcing northern and southern no-fly zones over Iraq. The spy craft can loiter for hours over Iraqi military operations and pick out anti-aircraft sites as potential targets.
For years, the Iraqis and Americans have been playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game. Officials say Iraq typically fires a missile at allied planes, then quickly tries to hide the mobile launch system. U.S. and British jets respond almost immediately by bombing an air-defense target.
Just yesterday, the game played out again as U.S. planes attacked an SA-3 surface-to-air missile system in the northern exclusion zone. The attack was in retaliation for Iraqis firing anti-aircraft artillery from sites north of Mosul.
Gen. Tommy Franks, who heads U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that coalition pilots had entered the southern zone 153,000 times since 1992. Not one pilot has been lost, including during major operations against air-defense networks near Baghdad.
The Pentagon's "after-action" report on the bombing of Serbia said commanders used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as the Predator in unprecedented numbers. More than 10 Predators and other UAVS were shot down or crashed during the air campaign.
An entire RQ-1A/B Predator system costs $25 million. It consists of four aircraft, a ground-control station, and a satellite link and communication suite — all manned by 55 persons. Each aircraft comes with a color nose camera, an infrared camera and a radar system for looking through smoke, clouds and haze. When the complete system travels, the crew packs it into a container nicknamed "the coffin."


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