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Profile: Future Of Military Air Power

Morning Edition: November 8, 2002

Unmanned Planes, Missiles Hold Key to Air Power


Last Sunday's missile attack in Yemen on a car said to be filled with al-Qaeda members proves America's ability to strike just about anywhere from the air. CIA agents used an unmanned aerial vehicle, known as a UAV, to track the car and fire the missile that killed the car's occupants. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports that the US Air Force has only begun to tap the potential of its arsenal of smart weaponry.


Air Force chief of staff General John Jumper has that intense, steely gaze befitting his 36 years in the world's most powerful military. But the former Vietnam combat pilot becomes just a little more animated and wide-eyed in a four-star general kind of way when you ask him about the near future of air combat.

General JOHN JUMPER (Chief of Staff, US Air Force): Imagine, for instance, the notion of a hovering UAV that might be equipped with a very precise sniper-type weapon on it that could have a sensor of some type that could see through walls, and you could map urban environments in three dimensions, and you're able to pinpoint a target on the 10th floor third window over and see through the wall in a way that you could put some sort of debilitating device through there, or snipe through the window.

WESTERVELT: The Air Force isn't there yet, but it's working on it. Secretary of the Air Force, James Roche, tells NPR that he's ordered that all new Predator drones be equipped to launch Hellfire missiles or other weapons.

Secretary JAMES ROCHE (US Air Force): There's no reason to build ones that would not. They don't have to be used that way, but if they are going to be there, we want to give our local combatant commanders the choice.

WESTERVELT: Some of those new drones will be ready, Secretary Roche says, if the order comes to attack Iraq. Drones, of course, don't have the quick reaction judgment of a live fighter pilot, and in an urban fight, the Air Force would likely rely more on manned aircraft and their portfolio of satellite-guided bombs, or JDAMs, Joint Direct Attack Munitions. Close-quarter fighting in downtown Baghdad, with some five million civilians, is a far different environment than the wide-open valleys of Afghanistan, where JDAMs first saw widespread use.

This B-1 bomber pilot from Texas asked that his name not be used. He says in any urban air operation, precision bombs could reduce civilian casualties and damage to important cultural sites. But he admits there are no guarantees.

Unidentified Man #1: That there's a church, a mosque, something close to a strategic target that we're taking out, then we can take out the target and leave the other stuff unscathed. Now it depends on how close the--collateral damage is what we call it--how close that is to the actual target.

WESTERVELT: To minimize civilian casualties and collateral destruction, Secretary Roche says the Air Force must produce more smaller-sized precision weapons.

Sec. ROCHE: We are, in fact, motivated and are working as fast as we can to get precision into smaller weapons. So, for instance, we have 2,000-pound bombs that are very precise, and we have 1,000-pound bombs. We want to drive that to 500 to 250-pound, because as precise as they may be, they can still go off, something can go wrong, and you want to limit collateral damage.

WESTERVELT: Since 1999, the Air Force has ordered nearly 250,000 of the regular-sized precision-guided bombs. And the Air Force will soon add a new precision weapon and another acronym to its arsenal, JASSM, or Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile.

Unidentified Man #2: If you'd like to go over here, we have one of our newer weapons.

WESTERVELT: JASSMs can be launched from any bomber or fighter, and while also satellite guided, the JASSM will have radar-evading technology. They'll be used to attack heavily defended, high-value targets from longer distances. The JASSM's full range is classified, but Air Force officials say it's been successfully tested at targets more than 200 miles away. While also a precision bomb, each JASSM will have its own rocket motor and wings, like a small airplane that explodes. This sergeant is a munitions expert at Missouri's Whiteman Air Force Base.

Unidentified Man #2: And these fins underneath here that you see will come out and it has approximately a 14-foot wingspan. The rocket motor will fire up. It flies right in. It is a stealthy-type weapon as well.

WESTERVELT: But the best technology can do little to help Air Force crews with the basic human need for rest. It's been an incredibly hectic 12 months for the Air Force. They've executed the air war and ongoing operations in Afghanistan, and the continued enforcement of the no-fly zones in Iraq. This B-52 bombardier, who asked not to be named, is just back from a four-month deployment in Afghanistan.

Unidentified Man #3: It wears on you. You deal with the family separation. We all know that that's part of the game. You know, you get ready to go, you prepare yourself and your family and you go to it. And you go through your ups and downs while you're gone, but once you get back, you get some down time with them and kind of recharge your batteries, get to know your family again and get ready for the next round.

WESTERVELT: The busy schedule also means experience. Nearly 70 percent of all active Air Force pilots and crews have now seen combat. And after more than a decade flying almost daily over parts of Iraq without ever losing even one airplane, one Air Force commander says many of their pilots know Iraq's terrain, quote, "like they know the route to church on Sunday." Eric Westervelt, NPR News, the Pentagon.

EDWARDS: The time is 19 minutes past the hour.

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