- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

The awkward killer — like the birds it mimics — begins as a shell, an oblong, egglike cylinder of fiberglass and resin with aerodynamic hollows for computer brain, robotic eyes and digital nerves.

The killer’s smooth, ungainly head and gawky wings mock stock science fiction caricatures of the high-tech future. Among film starlets and 20th-century fighter aircraft, sleek, slick and dazzling are the skin-tones of quick celebrity, and this slow vulture of a flying machine lacks easy sizzle.

Once assembled it will look like the prank mating of a toy propeller airplane and a bald duck, not a potent emblem of American 21st century hyperwar. Yet blunt utility as the genius behind design creates its own curious beauty.

And that’s the genius behind Predator, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that is arguably al Qaeda’s biggest shock in the War on Terror.

General Atomics, Predator’s manufacturer, led me through its manufacturing plant north of San Diego, where the “robot that hunts zealots” is assembled. The plant is an odd combination of very high-tech lab, model airplane hobbyist’s garage and, given the fuselage molds and curing wings, a surfboard manufacturer’s storage shed.

A Predator, of course, is no robot, not in the strictest sense. Predator is remotely piloted, meaning a pilot controls the Predator via data link. There is a “man in the loop.” A “true” robot operates autonomously. Predator can fly a route autonomously, however, making its “own decisions” about turns and altitude.

Predator was born as an unarmed 1990s peacekeeper, a reconnaissance platform that could “loiter over the battlefield” and locate Serb artillery pieces shelling Bosnian noncombatants. The U.S. military needed “persistent eyes” over terrain difficult to monitor from the ground and with manned aircraft.

That meant Predator began as a counterterror warrior, for Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian armies used artillery as a weapon to terrorize civilians, especially during the siege of Sarajevo. The Serb strategic goal —recall the term “ethnic cleansing” — was to force the Bosnian Muslim populace to flee.

Death squads, such as Arkan’s Tiger Militia, were one vicious instrument, heavy artillery savaging Muslim homes was another. Predator —the Predator A model, flying under CIA control from a Croatian island— became the unarmed sentry, but a sentry ultimately backed by the bombs of NATO fighter aircraft. Laser bombs made in America destroyed Serb guns detected by Predator, saving innocent lives.

Predator represents a key piece in what the Pentagon calls “network-centric warfare,” the rapid sharing of accurate information that allows for timely and optimal decisions, actions and reactions. The armed Predator-B’s successes against al Qaeda, such as the November 2001 attack against al Qaeda bigwig Mohammed Atef, demonstrate how “arming the persistent sensor” creates opportunities to ambush even the most elusive targets.

Al Qaeda is interested in UAVs, and this means Predator and its cousins aren’t permanent American allies. The U.S. congressional investigation of the September 11 terror attacks found evidence of international terrorist interest in UAVs. In 1997, the FBI determined “an unmanned aerial vehicle … would be used in terrorist attacks.”

Reports circulated “that a group had purchased a UAV and concluded the group might use the plane for reconnaissance or attack. The possibility of an attack outside the United States was thought to be more likely, for example, by flying a UAV into a U.S. Embassy.”

“Internetted men and machines” aren’t simply the military future, they play a growing role in the civilian present. The military isn’t quite out of the business — U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) already supports the National Emergency Fire Center with advanced communications gear and access to National Guard helicopters equipped with sling-loaded, collapsible “Bambi buckets” to dip into ponds and lakes and drop on forest fires.

The U.S. Forest Service now uses “Firemapper,” a thermal imaging system that’s a highly modified version of military equipment. Firemapper cuts through smoke and foliage to instantly map the contours and hottest spots in a raging fire.

At the moment, “Firemapper” rides on a helicopter flown by Forest Service pilots. By 2005, it will ride a UAV, possibly on a “civilian” Predator.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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