Sixteen months after an experimental unmanned plane in Afghanistan made its first-ever combat kill, pilotless planes are standard in the U.S. war kit. Over Iraq, they fired on and destroyed about a dozen military targets.
Air Force controllers of unmanned RQ-1 Predators say they used anti-tank missiles to blast Iraqi air defense batteries, missile launchers, radars and an Iraqi TV satellite communications dish.
Predator spy cameras allowed U.S. commanders to watch the capture of Palestinian hijacking suspect Abul Abbas and oversee the rescue of Army prisoner-of-war Pfc. Jessica Lynch. On another day, they foiled an Iraqi ambush on U.S. and British troops.
The quirky-looking spy planes have penetrated the Air Force's holiest grail, stealing roles previously handled by manned fighters. In December, an armed Predator was downed in a dogfight with a manned Iraqi MiG fighter - another first.
The unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, is flourishing in the U.S. military, gaining traction with top commanders far more quickly than even its biggest boosters thought possible.
With no oxygen- and sleep-needing human on board, Predators and other UAVs can watch over a potential target for 24 hours or more - then attack when opportunity knocks. "It won't be too many more years before pilots are flying this thing and probably nothing more," said a Predator ground controller, Maj. Mark Lilly of the Air Force 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Lilly said in the war's opening days his Predator discovered, followed and destroyed a Russian-built ZSU anti-aircraft gun near the southern Iraqi city of Basra.
Lilly's Predator, armed with a pair of Hellfire anti-tank missiles, beamed live video to Air Force commanders in Saudi Arabia, who ordered him to strike.
"I rolled onto the target and fired one Hellfire missile. It completely destroyed the ZSU," said Lilly, who controlled the Predator from a U.S. base in a country outside Iraq. The Air Force asked that the location of Lilly's squadron not be disclosed.
The Predator is a propeller-driven plane built by General Atomics of San Diego that flies quietly at around 100 mph and operates at 20,000 feet. It was just one of a dozen different types of UAVs used by all four U.S. service branches in Iraq.
About 50 pilotless drones took part in the war, said Dyke Weatherington, who heads the Pentagon's UAV planning task force. "They were absolutely critical to the speed and scope with which the coalition was able to press the attack," he said.
Until recently, the UAV's promise was held in check by the Air Force's veneration of its fighter pilots - not by the drones' technological limitations, said Glenn Buchan, a Rand UAV expert. But the Central Intelligence Agency used an armed Predator to kill al Qaeda operatives - and others - in Afghanistan and Yemen.
In Iraq, the Air Force took control of armed Predators, confining them to support roles in such targeted killings.
"We did provide coverage in leadership attacks, but we didn't provide firepower," said Air Force Capt. Stephen Jones, who flew Predators in both wars. "In Afghanistan we were the actual strikers."
Since then, the Pentagon quadrupled Predator purchases to two dozen per year. Commanders use them for ground strikes despite the sensitivities of fighter pilots, Buchan said. "Once they see the operational capabilities ... they say, 'This is how we're going to do business from now on."'
Buchan and others wonder whether coming armed UAVs - like the Predator B and the Boeing X-45 - will displace the Pentagon's $200 billion Joint Strike Fighter program. Armed UAVs like the X-45 are expected to cost a third as much as Lockheed Martin's $42 million JSF, the next-generation manned fighter.
"It's clearly a potential loser," Buchan said of Lockheed's forthcoming jet.
Weatherington declined to comment on the JSF issue, saying only that "reconnaissance is still the No. 1 priority" for UAVs.
Even so, military officials and analysts say the $2.5 million Predator's first dogfight in December heralds a new role.
Lilly said the Air Force was "baiting" the Iraqi air force by flying Predators over southern Iraq and fleeing when Iraqis scrambled their jets.
"Then they put Stinger missiles on a Predator. They took it up and the Predator didn't run away," he said.
The Predator and an Iraqi MiG 25 fired air-to-air missiles at each other. Lilly said the Stinger missed when its heat-seeker got diverted by the MiG's missile. The Iraqi missile downed the Predator.
"If it happens again, the Predator will come out on top," Lilly predicted.
In Iraq, UAVs handled myriad reconnaissance tasks.
A pair of older Predators, stripped of their sensors, flew one-way decoy missions just above the rooftops of Baghdad, hoping to gather intelligence on Iraqi air defenses that were expected to shoot down the sluggish drones.
To the surprise of Air Force brass, Iraqi gunners failed to fire on either one - although they downed another Predator over the ancient city. One of the decoys crash-landed into the Tigris River, sparking a futile search for pilots with Iraqis shooting into reeds along the riverbank.
In another Predator mission, Air Force Maj. John Breeden filmed the U.S. and British capture of the al-Faw peninsula and a nearby oilfield in southern Iraq.
Breeden, sitting at his ground station, saw some 200 Iraqi soldiers apparently waiting in an ambush just north of the oil installation, Lilly said.
Breeden called in a Special Forces AC-130 gunship that blasted a nearby guard house, convincing the Iraqis to surrender, Lilly said.
"When they saw it blow up they just walked into the center of the road with their hands up," Lilly said.
The Air Force also spied on Iraqi movements with a handful of RQ-4A Global Hawks, a pilotless jet made by Northrop Grumman.
The Air Force used the Global Hawk's synthetic aperture radar and infrared cameras to pick out Iraqi targets during the sandstorms that howled from March 24-27.
Iraqi troops hunkered down in the storm still had to suffer bombardments, said Maj. Bill Cahill, a Global Hawk liaison officer at the U.S. Combined Air Operations Center at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia.
If bombs failed to destroy targets, controllers - communicating with bomber dispatchers via secure computer chats - called for more, Cahill said.
"We'd say 'Look you missed it this time,"' Cahill said. "Or if a target moved, we'd tell the bomber 'Don't drop anything on that target. It moved."'
The Global Hawk is comparable to the U-2 manned spy plane, scanning the ground from above 60,000 feet - except the Global Hawk flies 30-hour missions requiring three to five shift changes of ground pilots, Cahill said.
Other UAV missions involved a variant of the Vietnam War-era Firebee, launched by the U.S. Navy from a C-130 cargo plane with special pylons mounted to its wings, said David Fulghum, military editor at Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Jet-powered Firebees dropped foil confetti over Baghdad during the first two nights of airstrikes, blurring Iraqi air defense radars to prevent them from tracking U.S. bombers and cruise missiles, Fulghum said.
The Marines used portable Dragon Eye UAVs for the first time in Iraq, snapping pictures during night battles, said Lt. Col. Don Bruce of the Marine Corps Systems Command.
And the Air Force flew a "force protection" UAV above U.S. bases to keep a camera out for ambushers, Weatherington said.
Other UAVs sent to Iraq include the Army's Shadow and its Israeli-designed Hunter drone, the Marines' Israeli Pioneer spy planes, and "a variety" of U.S. Special Forces UAVs, Weatherington said.
Although one UAV controller said he missed the "seat of the pants" feeling of a manned plane, others who spoke to the AP sounded enthusiastic about their roles - and the UAV's future in warfare.
"I think actually getting in an airplane and flying is going to be a thing of the past," Lilly said.
By Jim Krane