Washington, Mar.17 (ANI): Pentagon officials say that the remotely piloted planes or Drones have done more than any other weapons system to track down insurgents and save American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to the New York Times, these unmanned planes have become one of the military's favorite weapons despite many shortcomings resulting from the rush to get them into the field.
An explosion in demand for the drones is contributing to new thinking inside the Pentagon about how to develop and deploy new weapons systems.
Air Force officials acknowledge that more than a third of their unmanned Predator spy planes - which are 27 feet long, powered by a high-performance snowmobile engine, and cost 4.5 million dollars apiece - have crashed, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan.Pilots, who fly them from trailers halfway around the world using joysticks and computer screens, say some of the controls are clunky.
For example, the missile-firing button sits dangerously close to the switch that shuts off the plane's engines. Pilots are also in such short supply that the service recently put out a call for retirees to help.
But military leaders say they can easily live with all that.
Since the height of the Cold War, the military has tended to chase the boldest and most technologically advanced solution to every threat, leading to long delays and cost overruns.
Now, according to the NYT, the Pentagon appears to be warming up to Voltaire's saying, "The perfect is the enemy of the good."
In speeches, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has urged his weapons buyers to rush out "75 percent solutions over a period of months" rather than waiting for "gold-plated" solutions.
And as the Obama administration prepares its first budget, officials say they plan to free up more money for simpler systems like drones that can pay dividends now, especially as fighting intensifies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Field commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Air Force is in charge of the Predators, say their ability to linger over an area for hours, streaming instant video warnings of insurgent activity, has been crucial to reducing threats from roadside bombs and identifying terrorist compounds.
The C.I.A. is in charge of drone flights in Pakistan, where more than three dozen missiles strikes have been launched against Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in recent months.
Considered a novelty a few years ago, the Air Force's fleet has grown to 195 Predators and 28 Reapers, a new and more heavily armed cousin of the Predator.
Both models are made by General Atomics, a contractor based in San Diego. Including drones that the Army has used to counter roadside bombs and tiny hand-launched models that can help soldiers to peer past the next hill or building, the total number of military drones has soared to 5,500, from 167 in 2001.
The urgent need for more drones has meant bypassing usual procedures.
Some of the 70 Predator crashes, for example, stemmed from decisions to deploy the planes before they had completed testing and to hold off replacing control stations to avoid interrupting the supply of intelligence.
Complaints about civilian casualties, particularly from strikes in Pakistan, have stirred some concerns among human rights advocates. Military officials say the ability of drones to observe targets for lengthy periods makes strikes more accurate. They also said they do not fire if they think civilians are nearby.
The Predators and Reapers are now flying 34 surveillance patrols each day in Iraq and Afghanistan, up from 12 in 2006. They are also transmitting 16,000 hours of video each month, some of it directly to troops on the ground.
Colonel Mathewson, director of the Air Force's task force on unmanned aerial systems, said that while upgrades have been made to control stations, the service plans to eventually shift to simpler and more intuitive ground systems that could allow one remote pilot to control several drones. (ANI)