WASHINGTON — With 20,000 U.S. troops poised to enter Bosnia on a potentially bloody peacekeeping mission, the CIA and the Pentagon had hoped to rely to an unprecedented degree on unmanned spy aircraft to provide GIs with vital intelligence as they slog across the steep hills and cloud-covered valleys of the Balkans.
Despite billions of dollars in spending and decades of research and development, however, the only surveillance drone that the Pentagon is now flying in Bosnia-Herzegovina is its oldest, least capable and most crash-prone system.
One of the Pentagon's most advanced--and costliest--new drones has proven vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire and was pulled out of Bosnia in November after Bosnian Serb gunners successfully shot down two of the three in service there.
The problems with the drones have led to a significant gap in American intelligence capabilities in Bosnia, according to sources familiar with U.S. air operations in the region.
The Pentagon pulled its advanced Predator drones out of Bosnia because they were not equipped with the radar needed to see through dense Bosnian cloud cover, officials said. The Predators were being flown so low beneath the clouds that they were easy targets for Bosnian Serb ground fire. U.S. officials stressed, however, that none of the CIA's drones, similar in design to those operated by the military, were shot down.
CIA officials declined to discuss whether the spy agency also has withdrawn its drones from the Balkans.
The Pentagon and CIA were flying the drones over Bosnia and Serbia from a secret base in Albania, sources said. But officials do not expect to return the Pentagon's drones to duty in the Balkans until March, three months after U.S. troops are slated to arrive, officials said. The drones are now back in the United States being fitted with radar systems that will allow them to see through cloud cover and thus fly higher, officials said.
But today, the only drones operated by the U.S. military in the region are small, aging Navy aircraft--the short-range Pioneer--based on the Shreveport in the Adriatic Sea. The Pioneer produces relatively crude video pictures, cannot communicate with U.S. satellites and has crashed 20 to 30 times in the last decade, defense officials acknowledged.
"The Pioneers crash like apples falling off a tree," said Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., the president of San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which produces the long-range Predator.
But the short-range Hunter drones eventually slated to replace the Pioneer are plagued by severe technical problems as well, forcing the Pentagon to continue to rely on the older aircraft. A series of 10 crashes during the testing and development of the Hunter drones has prompted the Pentagon to put the program on the back burner.
And while the Pentagon already has spent $700 million on the Hunter program, congressional critics are now seeking to abandon it completely. A scathing report on the Hunter by the General Accounting Office in March found that the system "may prove unsuitable for use by operational forces."
"The Hunter has been a disaster," said Louis Rodrigues, a senior defense expert at the GAO.
Equally troubling, a bitter turf battle in Washington between the CIA and the Pentagon over control of America's new fleet of unmanned planes remains unresolved. Sources said that the CIA, eager to get a piece of one of the nation's fastest-growing intelligence programs, quietly obtained its own fleet of drones last year without fully disclosing its plans to Pentagon officials.
Defense officials said that the CIA considered obtaining drones from a shipment of U.S.-built aircraft originally earmarked for the Turkish government after the Turks were slow to pay for them. That plan was abandoned, and ultimately the CIA obtained its drones through other means, sources said.
The CIA bought a fleet of drones from General Atomics, designated as Gnat-750s, a smaller version of the company's Predator.
But the CIA's willingness to consider diverting the Turkish shipment underscores how eager the spy agency was to get back into the aerial reconnaissance field. Early in the Cold War, the CIA operated manned spy planes such as the U-2 and the SR-71 but later ceded them to the Air Force.
When Pentagon officials became aware that the CIA had gotten back into the drone business, military leaders were dumbfounded, officials say.
U.S. intelligence officials insisted that Pentagon policy-makers at "the very top of the chain of command" were aware of the CIA's decision to obtain a fleet of drones, but there is little doubt that the CIA's decision caused a firestorm of protest within the military.
"Some people [in the military] believed [the CIA] should get out of [drones]," said Dwight Williams, deputy director of the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office.