The Pentagon has been toying around with limited-run, prototype drones for decades. So how did the U.S. military suddenly have a small fleet of Predator robotic planes at the ready after 9/11? Aviation Week says the answer lies with Tom Cassidy, the maverick chief of Predator-maker General Atomics.
"We're going to tell General Atomics to build every Predator they can possibly build," replied [Air Force chief of staff] Gen. John P. Jumper, referring to the small San Diego company that developed the aircraft.Tom Cassidy isn't waiting for the paperwork to go through. Cassidy, the president and CEO of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, is expanding the Predator production line, even building eight additional Predator Bs -- a more capable version of the aircraft -- without orders. "They'll procrastinate for three years," he says of his military customers. "Then when they want to buy, they think it's like going down to the Ford dealership and picking one off the lot."Such blunt talk has won him his share of critics, but the 72-year-old retired rear admiral and veteran fighter pilot from The Bronx doesn't seem to care. The Predator, initially shunned by the military services, has won wide acclaim as a simple, adaptable aircraft that can provide crucial reconnaissance and strike capability for the bargain price of less than $5 million a copy, sensors included.The remotely piloted aircraft, which carries two Hellfire missiles and can stay aloft for more than a day at a time, stunned the world with its ability to hunt down and kill Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Afghanistan and the Middle East...It was Cassidy's risky "build it and they will come" strategy -- developing and building aircraft ahead of orders -- that proved decisive following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. When U.S. forces were unexpectedly and very suddenly ordered to rout guerilla-like forces from mountainous Afghanistan, Hellfire-equipped Predators weren't just a concept on the drawing board. They were in production.