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Avenger of the Skies: New Wave of Drones Takes Off

by Mike Harvey in San Diego
In the heat of California’s Mojave Desert they are testing one of the most important weapons of the future.

Technicians and engineers are poring over the Avenger, the first of a new generation of drones — the pilotless aircraft that have been so successful in the fight against the Taleban and al-Qaeda.

(The Times/UK) The stealth “unmanned aerial vehicle” (UAV) is the latest in the Predator series of drones that have transformed US military tactics.

Launched from US bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they are credited with turning the tide in the war against al-Qaeda, which has lost 20 commanders to the ghostly aircraft.

Predators are about to rack up 1 million flight hours as military commanders clamour for their hi-tech surveillance and attack capabilities. There are now more than 35 Predators in the air at any one time.

Drone warfare is now at the heart of a furious debate within the Obama Administration.

Joe Biden, the Vice-President, insists that remote-control fighting is the best way to fight al-Qaeda, while the military favours more troops on the ground in a classic counter-insurgency campaign.

The new jet-powered aircraft, which can fly practically undetected at 60,000ft, is being fine-tuned at the Gray Butte flight operations facilities of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI).

Armed UAVs have enabled the US to conduct airstrikes against Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters, some inside Pakistan, without endangering pilots. The leader of Pakistan’s Taleban was recently killed by one such strike and this week three missile attacks from drones killed dozens of militants in Pakistan’s tribal belt.

The Avenger, or Predator C, could give President Obama more options to keep tabs on strategic targets in the region and make unmanned strikes where necessary as he struggles with the decision on whether to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan.

Although the US military has not confirmed that it will order the Avenger, its manufacturer, based near San Diego, is quietly optimistic. The White House’s defence-budget request for the coming year includes about $3.5 billion for UAVs.

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