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Pentagon Sends New Spy Plane Back to Balkans

March 7, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Pentagon has sent its most advanced unmanned spy plane back to the Balkans to give NATO ground commanders a more immediate picture of troop and weapons movements.

The plane, called the Predator, flew missions over Bosnia last summer. It was pulled out after Serb air-defense gunners shot one down and controllers destroyed another in flight because of a malfunction possibly caused by ground fire.

The Pentagon did not announce Predator’s return to the Balkans, but Defense Secretary William Perry mentioned it in passing Thursday during testimony to a House Appropriations panel on the administration’s 1997 defense budget.

Predator ``is now deployed in Bosnia,″ Perry said without elaborating. Pentagon officials had said they expected to have the spy plane rejoin U.S. forces in the Balkans this month.

Despite the use of sophisticated equipment by NATO forces, the Clinton administration reiterated Thursday that the United States will not proceed with a modernization program for the Bosnian army until foreign fighters that pose a threat to the peace enforcers have left.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns estimated that up to 200 remain, mainly Iranians.

He said Bosnia ``will rue the day″ if they associate themselves too closely with Iran and noted recent reports that Iranian trainers are working with Bosnian soldiers.

``The Bosnians may believe that Iran was helpful at some point during their war. Iran cannot help them now,″ Burns said. ``There are 60,000 NATO troops helping to ensure the peace, helping to build a new Bosnian state, giving them a year of respite from the war. They don’t need a few hundred Iranians.″

Wary of further ground fire such as plagued the Predator previously, the Americans have outfitted the ones arriving now with a new radar-imaging system enabling it to ``see″ through cloud cover. Without the special radar, it had to fly below the clouds to get pictures, which made it vulnerable to being shot down by air-defense guns on the ground.

Defense officials said the Predators are being based at Taszar, Hungary, site of an airfield that American forces have been using as a reception point for supplies and equipment flown from Germany for use in Bosnia. About 75 military personnel and 20 civilians are involved in the Predator deployment, they said.

It was not immediately clear how many Predator aircraft would be used.

In its deployment last year, the Predator was based at an airfield in nearby Albania.

Lt. Col. Rick Scott, a Pentagon spokesman, said Predators are arriving in Taszar this week. The full deployment, including support equipment such as ground control stations, satellite dishes and trucks, are due to be in at Taszar by March 14 and will stay at least until Nov. 1, Scott said.

The Predator, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., of San Diego, is controlled by a pilot on the ground who guides the 27-foot-long drone to a target several hundred miles away, from where it can transmit images via satellite to ground commanders. It can stay on station over a target for as long as 24 hours at an altitude of 23,000 feet.

The aircraft should give NATO’s Bosnia commanders clearer, more immediate pictures of the positioning or movement of Bosnian government, Croat and Bosnian Serb military forces, and better views of weapons storage sites.

In his congressional testimony Thursday, Perry mentioned Predator as an example of technological advances that give U.S. commanders better battlefield awareness.

``This gives our forces an incomparable advantage in dealing with the enemy forces,″ Perry said. ``We know exactly where and who they are and what they’re doing. They do not have comparable information about us.″

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