Kandahar (Afghanistan), July 7 (ANI): The U.S. military often portrays its drone aircraft as high-tech marvels that can be operated seamlessly from thousands of miles away, but Pentagon accident reports reveal that pilot-less aircraft suffer from frequent system failures, computer glitches and human error.
Thirty-eight Predator and Reaper drones have crashed during combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and nine more during training on bases in the U.S. - with each crash costing between 3.7 million and 5 million dollars. Altogether, the Air Force says there have been 79 drone accidents costing at least a million dollars each.
Air Force investigators continue to cite pilot mistakes, coordination snafus, software failures, outdated technology and inadequate flight manuals.
Accident rates are dropping, but the raw numbers of mishaps are increasing as use of the aircraft skyrockets, according to Air Force safety experts.
For some experts, the most important point is that no lives have been lost.
The number of crashes, however, illustrates how quickly the unmanned aircraft have become an essential part of U.S. combat operations.
At least 38 drones are in flight over Afghanistan and Iraq at any given time.
Flight hours over Afghanistan and Iraq more than tripled between 2006 and 2009. However, ground commanders in Afghanistan say only about a third of their requests for drone missions are met because of shortages of aircraft and pilots.
The Air Force acknowledges that armed drones were not ready when first deployed as the U.S. military geared up for the campaign to oust the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. Most weapons systems are tested and refined for years. Unarmed drones had been in use since the mid-1990s, but the first armed version went to war just nine months after it was retrofitted.
Even now, the planes are not designed for the amount of use they're getting, their defenders say. The 27-foot Predators and 36-foot Reapers operate under conditions that put enormous stress on the light drones - and the humans who operate them.
"These airplanes are flying 20,000 hours a month, OK?" said retired Rear Adm. Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., president of the aircraft systems group at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in San Diego, which makes Predators and Reapers.
"That's a lot of flying," Cassidy said. "Some get shot down. Some run into bad weather. Some, people do stupid things with them. Sometimes they just run them out of gas."
The drones flew 185,000 hours over Afghanistan and Iraq in 2009, more than triple the number of hours flown in 2006. The Air Force expects that number to grow to 300,000 hours this year. (ANI)