ST. LOUIS — The Predator has become a key weapon in the American arsenal, used to hunt and destroy enemy fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaida terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen, and government-backed forces in Libya.
Predators are unmanned aerial vehicles, some of which are flown remotely from Missouri's Whiteman Air Force Base.
Since February, a ground control station for the weapon has been operating at the base about 75 miles southwest of Columbia, Mo. From there, Air Force pilots control the movement of $4.5 million Predators halfway around the world.
Some missions, including those in Pakistan and Libya, are controlled by the CIA.
U.S. intelligence officials believe that fear of the Predator was partly responsible for Osama bin Laden hiding far from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region where it silently patrols the skies.
"The Predator has revolutionized the way in which the American military pursues terrorists and insurgents," said military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. "When the enemy is unconventional, it is the best thing we have for finding and killing them."
Flying at up to 25,000 feet, the MQ-1B Predator, unlike manned aircraft, can hover, often undetected, for up to 24 hours over a target area. It provides surveillance, and when necessary, delivers pinpoint missile strikes. The 27-foot-long Predator carries radar, cameras and other sensors that can instantly relay live video and other information worldwide through satellite links. The Predator can be armed with two Hellfire laser-guided anti-tank missiles.
The drones are maintained and launched from forward airfields. Once in the air, the systems are controlled from places such as Whiteman.
The Predator is part of a growing number of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, many of which remain confidential, that provide commanders a level of situational awareness unavailable in the past, said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington.
"What's more important than anything is the ability in real time to tie together so much information, to interpret it and then use it for targeting and then strike almost immediately on the basis of that information," Cordesman said.
The Predator has proved especially effective against lightly protected, mobile enemy forces that often easily blend in with local populations.
On Thursday, a drone strike in southern Yemen missed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born militant and spokesman for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Awlaki is suspected of involvement in multiple terrorist plots against the United States.
On Friday, a strike in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan's borderlands killed 15 people, the first such attack in Pakistan since bin Laden's death. Public resentment against the drone strikes has been growing in Pakistan and already had strained U.S.-Pakistan relations even before bin Laden was found hiding in the country.
Some religious leaders and human rights groups question the morality and legality of the weapon. They cite the deaths of innocent civilians and say the use of Predators for targeted killings of "high-value" targets may violate international law.
Thompson called the morality debate "a bogus issue."
Manned aircraft would be far more destructive, cause more collateral damage and be more likely to lead to civilian casualties, he said.
Others worry that the ability to exert U.S. military power without risking loss of life could make it easier for political leaders to take the country to war.
In a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council last year, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings expressed concern that the Predator's operators based thousands of miles from the battlefield risked developing a "'PlayStation' mentality to killing."
Citing security issues, Air Force officials declined to make anyone available to discuss the Predator program and denied the newspaper's request to visit the Whiteman-based unit or interview its members.
The Air Force now has the capability to fly 54 Predator combat air patrol missions at once. It wants to increase that capacity to 65 round-the-clock missions by the end of 2013.
The Air Force earlier this year took delivery of the last of 268 Predators scheduled for purchase from California-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.
General Atomics is now building 329 MQ-9 Reapers, a larger unmanned aircraft that flies higher and faster, and carries 10 times the payload of the Predator.