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18 Mar 05. Reuters reported that the U.S. Air Force said Friday it planned to buy enough Predator drones to equip 15 squadrons over the next five years, up from three currently, to use in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots.

“The increase is in response to the escalating demand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability in the ongoing global war on terror,” the Air Force said. The Predator, resembling an upside-down spoon, may be piloted from thousands of miles away. Some versions have been equipped to fire laser-guided anti-armor “Hellfire” missiles in addition to collecting intelligence.

The Air Force would spend $5.7bn over the next five years for the drones, built by privately owned General Atomics Aeronautical System, Inc. of San Diego, California, said Capt. Shelley Lai, a spokeswoman. The expanded number of brigades, each consisting of about 12 Predators, would be used to back U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan among other, unspecified missions, Lai said.

“If there’s a homeland security mission, that has not been defined yet,” she said.

The Air Force plans to set up new Predator squadrons in Texas and Arizona in 2006 and 2007 and in New York in 2009, she said. Remotely piloted aircraft, including Northrop Grumman Corp.’s high-flying Global Hawk, play a growing role in U.S. military operations, providing everything from reconnaissance images to battlefield video. Less expensive than manned warplanes, they also keep U.S. pilots out of harm’s way.

The expanded reliance on such remotely piloted spy planes underscores how the way the United States gathers intelligence is shifting, said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a research group in Arlington, Virginia.

“During the Cold War, the United States relied very heavily on satellites in orbit to find Russian missiles silos and to track the Red Army,” he said.

“Today’s threats often require getting much closer to the enemy so that you can see small bands of terrorists or listen in on cell phone conversations,” Thompson said. The current three, active-duty, operational Predator squadrons are based at Nellis Air Force Base and Indian Springs Auxiliary Field in Nevada.

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