In a major boost to San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., the Air Force said Friday that it planned to spend nearly $6 billion for more than 140 of the company's unmanned Predator spy planes.
The remotely controlled aircraft made headlines early in the war in Afghanistan when it spotted a Taliban convoy and fired a Hellfire missile, striking the target. It marked the first search-and-destroy mission by an unmanned aircraft. Since then, the military has used the Predator in Iraq to track down insurgents and help U.S. forces keep an eye on potential threats.
The Air Force's latest plan would be the largest acquisition of robotic aircraft to date and represents a significant milestone in the evolution of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, analysts said. General Atomics currently is producing 12 Predators annually, but the Air Force would like to see production doubled this year.
"People used to say that the Air Force would never buy into an aircraft that didn't have a human being in it, but in fact they've fallen in love with them," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute.
Congress would have to OK the purchase of more Predators.
With its plank-like wings and bulbous nose, the propeller-driven Predator has a cruising speed of 84 mph. It is remotely controlled by an operator using a joystick and a video monitor in a trailer up to hundreds of miles away. A second operator directs onboard video cameras and airborne sensors to track and identify potential targets.
Predators cost $8 million to $10 million each, although adding the ground control station, satellite terminals, sensors and other equipment to operate the aircraft can boost the entire package to $40 million.
The Air Force, citing increasing demand for aerial surveillance and reconnaissance by U.S. forces in Iraq, plans to create 12 new squadrons to operate Predators. A squadron typical consists of 12 aircraft.
Predator squadrons are slated to be activated in Texas and Arizona in 2006 and 2007, then New York in 2009, said Capt. Shelley Lai, an Air Force spokeswoman. The bases for additional squadrons will be decided upon later this year, she added.
The new squadrons could support operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other overseas hotspots or be deployed domestically for homeland security missions, Lai said.
The Air Force currently operates a fleet of 40 Predators. Their home base is Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. The CIA and special operation forces also use the Predator, but the exact number is classified.
The Pentagon envisions replacing up to a third of its manned aircraft with UAVs by 2010. One beneficiary of this move is Century City-based Northrop Grumman Corp., maker of the Global Hawk, the most advanced spy plane in the U.S. arsenal. The $45-million, jet-powered Global Hawk can reach speeds of 360 mph, take photos from 60,000 feet and stay airborne for up to 35 hours.
UAVs could be used for coastal patrols, where constant surveillance is needed, Thompson said. Military intelligence officials appreciate that UAVs can loiter over an area for more than a day, something that piloted aircraft and orbiting satellites are unable do.
The Predator's success has lifted the fortunes of General Atomics, a privately owned company that struggled for years to gain credibility for the aircraft.
Since the onset of military operations in Afghanistan, the company has doubled in size and is hard-pressed to keep up with demand. General Atomic's payroll has doubled to 1,200 since 2002, and it is currently filling 300 new jobs. It also added another 120,000-square-foot manufacturing plant near San Diego.
During a Senate hearing last month, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper said, "We're going to tell General Atomics to build every Predator they can possibly build."