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 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
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