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In the sights of a joystick killing machine

CNN gets rare up-close look at Predator drones

By Brent Sadler
CNN

[Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Brent Sadler is on assignment in Afghanistan.]

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CNN's Brent Sadler stands at the airfield, while a drone targets him from above.

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Behind the Scenes
Afghanistan
War Against Terror

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- -- As I stood talking into a camera on a remote airstrip in Kandahar, a Predator drone circled the sky, putting me into its sights with its high-precision cameras -- and just a trigger away from being turned into the charred remains of a Hellfire missile.

About 8,000 miles away, someone at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada could look at me through the Predator's zoom lens and determine whether I should live or die. I could not see the Predator or hear it, but I could imagine how it must feel in the control box at Nellis when a high-value target is in their sights.

"The heart beats faster and the concentration levels really kick in," said Capt. Jon Songer, the squadron leader of the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Flight.

The unsuspecting target has no clue that once the Predator locks on, the final moments of life are upon you. Nothing is seen, nothing is usually heard. It's a clinical, surreal form of destroying a target.

The Predator is the U.S. military's most sophisticated killing machine in the war on terror -- a flying assassin constantly searching for Osama bin Laden and other top al Qaeda members. In one successful strike in Yemen in late 2002, a CIA Predator killed six suspected al Qaeda members, including a former bin Laden security guard who was suspected of playing a key role in the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors.

"This is the way of the future," Songer said. "Just the ability from the other side of the world to locate and destroy enemy targets is incredible, unbelievable -- to be able to do this from Vegas and destroy high value targets, perhaps bin Laden himself one day."

The flexible war machine

It was an eerie feeling on that airstrip at Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan. The plane was a long way off and out of eyesight, as it typically is on such missions. In essence, it's a silent killer.

If it's below 15,000 feet, you might hear the drone of the engine. But it's virtually impossible to see at that altitude. It's also difficult to detect by radar and very difficult for an enemy plane to shoot down. In Afghanistan, there are no enemy planes to worry about, so the Predator's spying goes unchallenged.

CNN was given rare access to the highly classified planes, which are operated by the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as the CIA. Each plane is worth about $4 million and armed with two powerful Hellfire missiles.

But the Predator's evolving role as a machine in the war on terror has drawn fire. Critics dispute the legality of targeted killing under U.S. and international law, especially if host nations are not told of the lethal strike.

Touring the airfield, I could not help but touch and feel the bird. My first close-up glimpse of the craft took my breath away.

The 48.7-foot wingspan of the squadron's Predator MQ-1L is slender and flexible. I applied a little pressure to feel the bend. Indeed, this war machine is so flexible you can bend it with hand pressure.

Predators are not fast, cruising about 80 miles an hour. The rear-mounted propeller seems small for the size of the craft -- what amounts to little more than a snowmobile engine strapped to a glider. It can fly for 20 hours at a time with a range of 450 miles on 100 gallons of fuel.

It is outfitted with an array of cameras and sensors in a classified nose pod. I was not told exactly what is inside the clearly visible swiveling ball, but I knew there was enough vision capability to spot a sniper in a window at great distance.

"At the front of the aircraft, you have the video camera. It's got both electric optic and infrared capability. What does that mean? It can see both in daylight and at night," Songer said.

The number of Predators operating in Afghanistan is classified. But there are enough of them in Songer's squadron to maintain an aerial view of the battlefield every hour of every day and night. The missions are always top secret.

I was told that one of the Predators in front of me recently fired a Hellfire missile at a group of Taliban insurgents, killing 12 of them. It was launched by a young woman who is 23.

On the prowl for bin Laden

Predators are flown over Afghanistan, but they are hands-on controlled by pilots and sensor operators at Nellis Air Force Base through a satellite KU band link. Kandahar's ground controllers launch and recover the Predators.

"It could be flown from Alaska, the North Pole, anywhere you wanted to fly this airplane from you could," said Songer. "All you need is the ground control station and the link to be able to talk to the aircraft."

The 62nd Expeditionary's Predators sometimes carry an American flag over the skies of Afghanistan on reconnaissance missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. One of those special flags was presented to a U.S. family whose son was killed in action fighting the Taliban.

The Predator that carried that flag was believed to have launched a deadly strike against the same insurgent group that killed the American soldier.

"We were proud to be able to present that flag," Songer said.

Six years ago, before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a CIA spy plane captured what is believed to be bin Laden in its sights -- a tall figure wearing a white robe. The drones were not equipped with missiles at that time.

The question now is: Will the Predator get a second chance at bin Laden?

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