- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 17, 2002

From combined dispatches

The Army RC-7B spy plane ordered by the Pentagon to help hunt for a sniper terrorizing the Washington area is a much more potent weapon than its looks would suggest.

The new and modified version of the original four-engine, turboprop De Havilland Canada Dash-7 airliner is packed with sophisticated surveillance equipment. It can track people and vehicles on the ground day and night.

The quiet RC-7B (R for reconnaissance) carries a crew of pilot, co-pilot and four systems operators. But the $17 million electronics system is highly automated to reduce workload on the crew.

Used in recent years to hunt for drug smugglers in Latin America and to look closely at the military in North Korea, it also carries computer-enhanced, long-range camera equipment.

The aircraft is 80 feet long, has a wingspan of 93 feet and can stay aloft for nearly 10 hours at a stretch, circling an area to watch the ground with heat-seeking infrared and other sensors.

It could provide high-resolution imagery and night vision for such things as tracking the light-colored van that authorities say was seen at one or more of the shooting sites. Infrared sensors that can detect flashes of gunfire on the ground also could be used, officials said.

The Pentagon earlier considered using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) such as the military's Predator spy plane, but that option was rejected because of major requirements for such craft over Afghanistan and in the Gulf region.

The response to a request from the FBI and local police to use the military in a domestic criminal case is not unprecedented. But it is highly unusual and reflects the pressure in the search for a sniper who has killed nine persons and wounded two others since Oct. 2.

While defense officials declined to provide specifics of the operation except to say that only a small number of planes would be involved, they stressed that crews would include civilian federal agents and that the military would not become directly involved in police work.

Under terms of the federal Posse Comitatus law, the military can provide equipment, supplies, technical assistance and training to domestic law enforcement agencies. But it cannot be involved in making arrests or other such direct civilian police work.

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