A Killer Drone

  • General John Jumper was just starting his first day as the Air Force's top officer when a hijacked airliner slammed into the Pentagon, shaking the floor beneath him. Unlike most Americans, who had no way to strike back at terror, Jumper did something about it. His missile-firing Predator drones--the first weapons of their kind--were deployed to try to kill Osama bin Laden.

    While the Pentagon has been using drones as flying spies for years, it was less than 18 months ago that Jumper--then running the Air Force's Air Combat Command--first realized that his growing fleet of unmanned aircraft represented a missed opportunity. "It just clicked: that if we could put a small weapon on this thing, we could do the entire cycle--find a target, kill it and assess it--from the same vehicle," the Vietnam War pilot recalls. Jumper didn't actually engineer the missile-firing drone, but he oversaw and championed its development. Even more important, he fought the bureaucratic battles needed to get it into the air. On Feb. 21, he prevailed: in a test conducted in the Nevada desert, a Predator took aim at a tank with a Hellfire missile and scored a direct hit. The system worked so well that it was pressed into service in October, well ahead of the military's typically plodding development schedule.

    Drones have some obvious advantages over manned aircraft: they don't put pilots' lives at risk, and they're relatively cheap. For the price of one F-22 ($180 million) you could buy 60 Predators. Today about a dozen Predators--which are flown by the CIA as well as the Air Force--are loitering in the skies over Afghanistan, largely invisible from the ground but able to spot objects 4-in. across from 16 miles away. Their prey is what the Pentagon calls "high-value mobile" targets--like SUVs suspected of ferrying bin Laden from one hiding place to another. The combat record remains secret, but Pentagon officials claim that Predators have fired dozens of Hellfires "very successfully."

    Jumper, 56, acknowledges that as a former "white-scarf fighter pilot" (and the father of two daughters who wear Air Force blue), he might be expected to hate drones for usurping the role of the fighter jock. Not so. "Pilots are for anything," he says, "that will get them in and out alive."