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Unmanned aircraft rubbish, says senior US pilot

And don't waste my time with your roadside bombs

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One of the US air force's most senior pilots has cast doubt on the usefulness of unmanned aircraft.

According to Aviation Week & Space Technology, USAF general Ronald E Keys, chief of Air Combat Command, made negative remarks about drone aircraft survivability on Wednesday during a keynote conference speech.

General Keys, who holds a "command pilot" rating, flew F-4 Phantoms over Vietnam in 1969-70 and has logged more than 4,000 flight hours in various aircraft.

Reportedly, the general placed a large question mark over the chance of flying combat robots such as the US Predator-B/Reaper being able to survive in battle against countries such as China, Iran, or North Korea.

According to Keys, only one thing could limit the number of Predators that China could blow away - "How fast can they reload their missiles?"

That seems a trifle unfair. To be sure, a Predator could probably be shot down pretty easily by the Chinese HQ-18, but other missiles in the People's Republic arsenal could struggle to reach a Predator flying at its maximum 50,000 foot altitude. And Iran's best missile, the Russian TOR-M1/SA15, has a ceiling of 20,000 feet*. Also, a Predator only costs about $15m, being a very basic propellor-driven aircraft.

A manned F-22 Raptor stealth superjet could take on communist air defences much more effectively, but Raptors cost a lot more. In 2005 it was estimated that each jet will have cost the US taxpayers $345m to acquire.

It isn't the pilot that makes a Raptor better than a Predator. It's the stealth, the engines, all the rest of the amazing technology in the plane. High-tech stealth robot demonstrators have been built, but the USAF has shown no interest in buying any as yet.

The general also appeared to chafe at the way the air war in Iraq is being fought, suggesting that his pilots - and his flying robots - were being made to waste their time carrying out overhead flights looking for roadside bombs. He suggested that the number of bombs discovered per 100,000 flight hours was very low.

"It's a waste," he said.

"People come to me and tell me they want a Predator," he said. "I ask, 'What are you looking for?' Tell me what you're looking for... this is no way to fight a war."

Apparently, the only thing anyone cares about is whether the air force is meeting task orders from ground commanders. Keys felt there might be better uses for the aircraft. Apparently, his staff have worked out a "concept of deployment" to help fight roadside bombs which doesn't involve merely doing what ground troops are asking for, but he didn't go into specifics.

The Aviation Week & Space Technology report is here. ®

*Though Iran is said to have tested a partially home made version of the high-altitude Soviet SA-2, dating from the 1950s.

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