The Nevada Home of the Predator Drone Craft

The Predator has emerged as one of the most useful weapons in the U.S. military's arsenal. The tiny Unmanned Aerial Vehicle played a role in catching Saddam Hussein, in killing a high-profile al Qaeda suspect in Pakistan this spring, and in trying to find the Navy SEAL team that went missing in Afghanistan this summer. But the pilots who actually fly the Predator are far from the action. They're sprawled in leather armchairs planted in trailers, in the middle of the desert in Nevada. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly visits the home of the Predator outside Las Vegas, for this look at how the Predator works and how it's being adapted for new challenges, like detecting explosives in Iraq.

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Aside from its name, on paper the flimsy airplane known as the Predator doesn't sound like much. Its top speed is slower than a Honda Civic, its engine sounds more like a lawn mower than an F-16 and it freezes up and drops from the sky if it runs into a cloud. But the Predator has emerged as one of the most useful weapons in the US military's arsenal. It played a role in catching Saddam Hussein, in killing al-Qaeda suspects in Pakistan and Yemen and trying to rescue the Navy SEAL team who went missing in Afghanistan this summer. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly paid a visit to the headquarters of the Predator, and it's not where you might expect.

MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:

It's the middle of the night in Iraq when a lone man steps out of the blackness and enters what had appeared to be an abandoned building. The activity is monitored from 11,000 feet above by a US Predator slowly circling, filming everything it sees from an infrared camera mounted in its nose. The Predator's pilot, Air Force Captain Richard Coe, says he's under orders to look for any enemy movement.

Captain RICHARD COE (US Air Force, Predator Pilot): I've been watching this house here for the last three or four hours, ever since we launched, and we're just trying to find any kind of unusual activity, anything that looks like weapon caches or people out and about late at night. So anything that looks suspicious at basically 3 in the morning, we're going to watch and take a look at.

KELLY: Here's the twist: Captain Coe is more than 7,000 miles from Iraq. He's sitting in a trailer in the middle of the desert in Nevada. The Predator is a 27-foot-long drone or, in military lingo, a UAV, unmanned aerial vehicle. The pilots fly by remote control with the aid of a satellite, half a dozen computer screens and a joystick.

Another pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Matt Bannon, concedes the arrangement does give rise to some complications, for example, a two-second delay between when he tells the plane to turn and it actually does.

Lieutenant Colonel MATT BANNON (US Air Force, Predator Pilot): So when I'm flying the Predator and I start a turn--one thousand one, one thousand two--I see the roll come in.

KELLY: But the upside to flying the Predator from halfway around the world is that the military boosts morale and saves a lot of money by keeping these pilots home with their families in the US rather than shipping them off to war.

Right now the US has about 80 Predators. Most are in Iraq or Afghanistan but are flown by pilots like Coe and Bannon from Nellis Air Force Base about half an hour outside Las Vegas. Bannon is director of operations for the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron. He used to be a top-gun pilot flying fighter jets for the Navy. He says flying drones is definitely less sexy but also more challenging. Pilots rely on a small camera that can only look one direction at a time. Bannon compares it to seeing the world through a soda straw. Even experienced pilots can get in trouble. Bannon did this summer in Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. BANNON: I thought I was clear, looking forward 15 seconds, initiated a turn and there's a cloud--a thunderstorm right in front of me. Next thing I know, you know, I went from 24,000 feet to 16,000 feet, totally iced up, barely able to maintain altitude. But I got the plane home, you know, and I felt more helpless flying a Predator than I have flying fighters, you know, for the past 15 years.

KELLY: Since the September 11th attacks, about 30 Predators have crashed. At 4 million a pop, they're not cheap, but in the world of defense hardware that doesn't rank as a devastating loss. And military commanders say the Predator's overall record is outstanding. In Iraq, Predators armed with Hellfire missiles have taken out snipers that were threatening US ground troops. They're also adept at tracking enemy insurgents at night. Bannon says from his perch in Nevada he can watch targets moving around Baghdad and can lead US and Iraqi ground patrols right to them.

Lt. Col. BANNON: We have different methods of pinpointing them. We have something called an infrared pointer where a person with NVGs, or night vision goggles, can see our infrared point and then they can just follow that spot and find out where the people may or may not be.

KELLY: The Predator is also used in the wider war on terror. The most spectacular of the handful of known incidents came in 2002 in Yemen. A Hellfire missile fired from a Predator, took out six suspected terrorists driving across the Yemeni desert. This past May a Predator reportedly killed an al-Qaeda operative in Pakistan. Such incidents have raised legal and ethical questions such as: Is the Predator, in effect, carrying out assassinations? After the Yemen attack, Europeans expressed alarm. Sweden's foreign minister called it a summary execution that violates human rights. And Amnesty International asked. `Shouldn't the suspects have been arrested rather than shot given that they posed no immediate threat?' Put that question to Lieutenant Colonel John Harris, commander of the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron, and his swift answer is `No.'

Lieutenant Colonel JOHN HARRIS (Commander, 15th Reconnaissance Squadron): I understand the concerns, but this is combat. It's war. It's literally going out and after the throat of the folks that are out there leading these efforts against us. And we're going to do it by whatever means and this just is a means for us to be able to do that.

KELLY: And the Pentagon clearly intends to keep using the Predator. Over the next five years there are plans to buy 35 new ones and 24 Predator B's, a bigger, more lethal version. Forty-five minutes up the road from the Nellis base, the Air Force is building a huge new hangar to house them.

Major MATT BELMONTE (UAV Battle Lab): I would bet you could probably put at least 16 Predators in here because it's just a gigantic space.

KELLY: That's Major Matt Belmonte of the UAV battle lab here at Creech Air Force Base. New Predator pilots do their training at Creech and, in the next year or two, all Predator operations will be moved here. Local pride in the plane already runs high. The 24-hour diner in town offers a Predator sandwich piled with jalapenos and hot roast beef.

(Soundbite of Predator taxiing)

KELLY: Major Belmonte stands watching a Predator taxi in from a training mission. His job involves figuring out how to adapt the Predator and other unmanned planes to future challenges. His lab, for example, figured out how to beam live video from the Predator's camera down to soldiers with laptops on the ground so they can use the intelligence in real-time fighting. Belmonte says the arrival of the Predator B in the next year or two will mark another big step forward.

Maj. BELMONTE: Once the next generation of Predators come out, we're looking at how we do things as far as having that big aircraft fly over with more weapons carriage capability. So you would take a small UAV, have a whole bunch of those beaming up targeting points to a bigger UAV that's sort of a bombs carriage capability.

KELLY: Also in Predator's future, letting one Nevada-based pilot simultaneously fly four planes. Pilots say a lot of their flights in Iraq and Afghanistan are actually pretty routine, circling for hours, watching and waiting. Why not fly four Predators at once? Testing started this week. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News.

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