Sunday's New York Times runs a long feature on General Atomics – Aeronautical Systems, Inc (GA-ASI) and the Predator unmanned air vehicle. If you are invited to visit GA-ASI, the NYT suggests "take a bit of advice: accept a ride on the corporate jet. The plane isn't fancy. The cabin is cramped and the seats a little threadbare."
The NYT may also have found the ride a bit rough. There's this vibration, you see, caused by the big spinning three-blade thingies on the front of the engines of GA-ASI's King Air. Memo to NYT. If you really want to get your credibility above the Jayson Blair level, maybe you should assign aerospace stories to someone who knows the difference between a propeller and a jet.
Further down, the NYT traces the UAV concept back to the 1930s and "a group of angry German commanders plotting revenge". From this description, which makes Guderian and Rommel sound like high-schoolers miffed at being grounded on homecoming night, we get into the obligatory sports metaphors: "a strategy that allowed them to end-run their enemies' trenches by using panzerdivizions"
By using WHAT? The NYT has made up this word and it has stormed past their renowned editors and fact-checkers like – well, a Panzer-Division. This is not war-geek nitpicking: the NYT would never, ever make such errors concerning something that they gave a rodent's rear end about, like the latest Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit, or allegations of unspecified wrongdoing by the third cousin three times removed of a former deputy assistant White House aide.
Aside from a few sensible critiques of the Predator from Tom Ehrhard at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the piece is startlingly unstartling.
For once this is not a hit job in which evil defense contractors sell overpriced junk to the troops. The NYT does try to sell the story that the Predator represents a victory over military conservatism, in the form of big contractors and hidebound commanders, but that is not entirely true.
The NYT argues that the USAF was lobbying against UAVs ten years ago, which it wasn't – both the Predator and Global Hawk were well under way by then. The critical roles of DARPA and inventor Abe Karem – whose Leading Systems company developed the Predator's precursor, the Gnat, in the 1980s – are absent.
Also missing is the fact that it was policy made by Congress, not the generals, which nearly killed the Gnat in the late 1980s (by establishing a single monopoly program office to run all UAVs), as is the fact that a secret CIA project saved it. And it was the generals (the USAF's John Jumper in particular) who pushed for the installation of a laser designator on the Predator, and who identified the value of persistence as the key to Predator's usefulness.
The NYT alludes to the USAF/Army spat, but does not mention that the Army plans a GA-ASI UAV force almost as large as the USAF's; in fact, the reader would assume that there's only one GA-ASI UAV, called Predator, rather than a family of three vehicles (and growing). Including the company's secret jet (which, by the way, really is a jet.)
So, the next time you wonder why your local Congresscritters or their staffs know as little about defense technology as they do, think about this story.