Sat, Apr 23, 2011 - Page 1 News List

US plans more drones for Pacific

By William Lowther  /  Staff Reporter in WASHINGTON

The Pentagon is planning to move a number of armed drone aircraft to its Pacific Command force from where they could be used in part to support Taiwan’s security and guard against a surprise attack by China.

Equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance cameras, the Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) would monitor China’s military buildup and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Quoting a Pentagon official, the Washington Times reported earlier this week that a special task force at the US Joint Chiefs of Staff was studying the move.

The UAV would become available in the coming months as the US draws down forces from theaters in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

While it is still not clear just how many drones would be involved, Pentagon plans call for a total worldwide force of 33 Predators and 32 Reapers — and support staff of about 12,000 — to be flying over the next few years.

They have a budget of about US$5 billion this year.

The Predator costs about US$5 million per unit, while the Reaper is about US$10.5 million per aircraft.

Military sources said the Predators and Reapers, which can stay up for 24 hours at a speed of 644kph, would most likely be stationed in South Korea and Okinawa, Japan.

Last year, the US military stationed Global Hawk surveillance drones in Guam.

Together with the Global Hawks, the Predator and Reaper drones would monitor the movements of China’s expanding forces, its coastal missile batteries — including those in provinces directly across from Taiwan — and watch remote islands that are claimed by competing Asian countries including Taiwan and China.

John Pike, head of the -Washington-based Global Security think tank, told the Taipei Times that the Predators and Reapers would probably be used to monitor the Chinese coast where they could provide more “persistent” coverage than is provided by spy satellites.

They would be particularly useful, he said, in following Chinese military exercises, including missile drills.

“It all helps Taiwan’s security,” Pike said.

Data gathered by the drones can be transmitted almost instantly to bases on the ground, while they could also fire deadly accurate missiles in emergency situations.

US Air Force Colonel James Sculerati told a conference on military drones this week that future drone missions would include more night flights and flights in difficult weather.

“We already do a lot of work at night. We are going to do more work in weather [and] we are -going to do more work in difficult terrain. We need vehicles that are capable of flying in darkness, in all weather,” he said.

Many analysts believe drones will eventually replace manned fighter aircraft.

While China’s drones are believed to be several years behind US models in development, there are concerns that Beijing could be catching up.

The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission recently reported: “The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] Air Force had deployed several types of unmanned aerial vehicles for both reconnaissance and combat purposes.

“In addition, China is developing a variety of medium and high-altitude long-endurance unmanned vehicles, which when deployed, will expand the PLA Air Force’s options for long-range reconnaissance and strike,” it said.

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