BIG BOOST FOR PREDATOR FLEET

The U.S. Air Force is looking to expand its fleet of flying drones, big time. Right now, the service has three active squadrons of Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. But that could expand to 15 squadrons of the robotic planes under a $5.7 billion plan just introduced by the Air Force.pred_desert.jpgIn recent years, the Air Force and CIA have used the bulbous-nosed, propeller-driven Predator UAVs to blast insurgents in Iraq, take out Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, and spy on Iran's nuclear facilities. The 144-drone buy would be the Air Force's "largest acquisition of robotic aircraft to date and represents a significant milestone in the evolution of unmanned aerial vehicles," according to the Los Angeles Times.

Predator squadrons are slated to be activated in Texas and Arizona in 2006 and 2007, then New York in 2009, said Capt. Shelley Lai, an Air Force spokeswoman. The bases for additional squadrons will be decided upon later this year, she added.The new squadrons could support operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other overseas hotspots or be deployed domestically for homeland security missions, Lai said.
Last month, the Air Force scooped $160 million out of its maintenance budget to buy 15 new Predators -- and a load of missiles, to arm the drones already in service.
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