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U.S. loses many military drones

From Mike Mount
CNN Washington Bureau

A Hellfire missile is attached to a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle.
A Hellfire missile is attached to a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Nearly half the U.S. Air Force's fleet of RQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles have crashed or been shot down in the years since they've been deployed, according to Air Force officials and military records.

The most recent crash occurred Tuesday during a maintenance test flight in Pakistan.

Nearly 30 Predators of 60 to 70 in the fleet have been lost since the plane entered service in 1994, according to an Air Force official.

Most of the mishaps involved accidents during testing, an official said. Despite its active duty, the UAV is still considered to be under development.

Since August 2001, the Air Force has lost nine Predators in the U.S.-led war against the Taliban regime and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and over southern Iraq while patrolling the no-fly zone established by the United States and Britain after the 1991 Gulf War to protect Shiites from the Saddam Hussein regime.

Four were lost in 2001. One crashed in Afghanistan because of mechanical failure. The other three went down over southern Iraq, and since the wreckages were not recovered, officials don't know how many were shot down and how many malfunctioned.

Of the five lost in 2002, one was shot down over Iraq and four crashed in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Air Force reports have blamed accidents on everything from bad weather to engine failure.

The RQ-1 Predator entered service in 1994 while still being tested, according to Air Force officials. It was first used in Bosnia as a reconnaissance drone.

Its success as a spy plane and its long cruising range pushed the drone into service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite its loss rate and the $3.2 million cost of each plane, the Predator has seen a range of additional missions. It has helped direct gunfire from AC-130 gunships and outfitted with Hellfire missiles it has destroyed mobile ground targets.

The CIA operates Predators independently of the Air Force as an offensive aircraft. Using remote control, the CIA recently killed some al Qaeda suspects as they drove in a truck in southwestern Yemen.

Unmanned Predator armed with Hellfire missile photographed during 2001 test flight
Unmanned Predator armed with Hellfire missile photographed during 2001 test flight

Air Force officials said they do not see a slowdown in Predator use because of the accident rate. The Air Force is expecting to receive as many as two new Predators each month this year, an official said.

This week, the Pentagon directed an unspecified number of Predators based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada readied for deployment to the U.S. Central Command, which oversees activities in the Middle East and Central Asia.



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