Northern Michigan may get Predator spy planes soon

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LANSING — Unmanned spy planes the CIA uses to watch and attack terrorist targets in Afghanistan may soon be coming to northern Michigan.
The Michigan National Guard is looking into buying the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) — called Predator — for the Alpena Air National Guard Training Site, said Maj. Gen. E. Gordon Stump, head of the state guard.
In an exclusive Capital News Service interview, Stump said he visited the California manufacturing firm that builds the Predator earlier this week to explore possibly obtaining the technology for the state guard training facilities in Alpena.
During the wide-ranging interview, Stump also criticized current plans to remove National Guard units from airports across the nation on April 1 and suggested airline pilots should have access to weapons in their cockpits.
In addition to training purposes, Stump said the Predator would be used to watch the U.S./Canadian border and to combat drug trafficking.
“It would be a great aircraft for border security,” Stump said. “The images they get from the aircraft are just outstanding.” Homeland defense will be “a great mission for the Predators,” according to Stump.
Not just the National Guard would be able to train with the Predators.
“It would be a resource for people that use (the Predators) to come and train on them,” said Maj. James McCrone, state public affairs officer for the National Guard.
“We already have the most sophisticated fighter training system in the United States there. This would enhance our training resources.”
With security in the nation’s airports and the skies above them a rising concern, Predator planes are receiving more attention from federal and state officials as a new weapon to combat terrorism.
The Predator, manufactured by General Atomic Aeronautical Systems of San Diego, is an unmanned craft most recently used by the CIA in Afghanistan to gather information without putting its people at risk.
The Predator can also carry and launch laser-guided missiles, one of which was used to destroy an al-Qaeda compound in November.
U.S. officials have confirmed three attacks where the Predator was used, including the one outside Kabul in November.
The Predator was also used in a failed attempt to protect an opposition leader from Taliban forces in October as well as an attack on Feb. 4 in the mountains of east Afghanistan on a group of men suspected to be al-Qaeda members.
Controversy has arisen over this latest attack as Afghanis claim that peasants were killed while U.S. officials claim high-ranking al-Qaeda members were the targets. Initial reports claimed that Osama bin Laden could have been a target and DNA testing is being performed to determine who was actually killed.
Questions have arisen as to whether the Predator is worth the money it costs to produce.
A single Predator unit includes four planes and a ground control unit and costs almost $25 million each. A single plane alone costs almost $3.7 million.
The money for the technology would not be coming from the state, however.
“This is all federal money,” McCrone said.
“Whether there is enough money in the budget or not is what we are exploring.”
Stump said that the cost would be negligible when compared to using a manned aircraft to perform the same tasks of border patrol and surveillance.
“(Using a Predator) is a relatively inexpensive way of doing it compared to manned aircraft,” said Stump, a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot.
According to Dick Nester, a program manager in the Predator division at General Atomic, Michigan is not the only state exploring the Predator technology.
“California, New Mexico and Mississippi have all expressed interest,” Nester said. “Nothing is on paper as of yet.”
Federal money would also be going to airport security, a plan that Stump has doubts about.
“The current plan is for all of the Guard to be gone nationwide on April 1,” Stump said. “I don’t think that will happen as there is a lack of training for replacements for the Guard.”
Stump expressed concern about the current plan to federalize airport security.
“I think hiring and training (new employees) is fine,” Stump said. “I just don’t think it is necessary to make them a federal employee.”
“The assumption behind it is that you’ll have more control over them if they are federal employees.”
Stump also expressed a strong opinion on training flight attendants and pilots to handle unruly passengers.
“Flight attendants should have some sort of training on how to handle (terrorists),” Stump said. “I would certainly arm the pilots as a lot of them are ex-military and know how to wield a weapon.”
“You should just put a weapon in the cockpit and lock the door.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

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