Are Predator spy craft worth the cost?

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Capital News Service
LANSING — The Michigan National Guard is exploring bringing Predator unmanned planes to Alpena for training and border security, but there are doubts as to how effective the spy craft actually are.
Critics say that the Predator, at a cost of about $3.7 million per plane, is not worth the money. A Predator unit, which includes four planes and a ground control unit, costs about $25 million.
Maj. Gen. E. Gordon Stump, head of the Michigan National Guard, took a trip this week to explore purchasing a Predator unit for the Alpena Air National Guard Training Site.
A Predator, manufactured by General Atomic Aeronautical Systems of San Diego, has an infrared camera with a zoom lens and a spotter lens as well as a radar sensor.
The plane can transmit the data received back to a central point in real time, but critics say that the video is not accurate enough to pinpoint targets.
The aircraft also has the ability to launch laser-guided missiles at targets from a remote location., the Web site for the Cable News Network, posted an article last week critical of the Predator’s capabilities.
Among the flaws listed in the article were the Predator’s incapability to take off during inclement weather, the inaccuracy of the images provided by the aircraft and the complex controls, which frustrate even veteran pilots.
However, Stump, a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, argues that the plane is easy to handle.
“It’s a relatively simple system to use,” Stump said. “Most of the people who were flying them (in California) were not military trained, but were light aircraft pilots who were trained on the Predators.”
According to the CNN article, one out of every eight of the Predators possessed by the U.S. Air Force has crashed in Afghanistan, including two in January.
At least seven have been reported as shot down or crashed in Afghanistan or Iraq over the past six months.
The makers of the plane dispute this statement, however.
“The statement that one of eight has crashed is incorrect,” said Dick Nester, a program manager in General Atomic’s Predator division. “You have to take into account shoot downs. The actual record of the Predator is probably better than many private planes.”
Even with all the flaws, President Bush’s 2003 budget calls for $158 million to buy 22 new Predators and upgrade existing ones.
An internal report released by the head of the Pentagon’s testing agency just before the war on terrorism began declared the plane “not operationally effective or suitable.”
“If the Predator system is to be effective and suitable, … the shortfalls identified in this (report) must be addressed,” wrote Thomas Christie, director of operational test and evaluation for the Defense Department in the report.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

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