'60 Minutes' video: Drone warfare in Iraq

UAVs like the Predator are a highly valued asset for the U.S. military as it pursues "fleeting and perishable" targets. Lesley Stahl reports.

One technology more than any other has stood out as a success story for the U.S. military in Iraq: unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

The best-known of the UAVs, the MQ-1 Predator, has evolved from its early use as simply a reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft to become a highly valued weapon in its own right. Armed with Hellfire missiles, it can both track enemy combatants and fire on them. A more recent version of the Predator, called the MQ-9 Reaper, was specifically put into service as a "hunter-killer" drone.

The Pentagon has been so impressed with the use of UAVs in combat zones that it has made a high priority out of training and assigning new pilots for the aircraft (though not without some controversy). While the Predators carry out missions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and are handled by ground crews there, the pilots generally operate from thousands of miles away, in places like Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

In Sunday's installment of the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes, correspondent Lesley Stahl traveled to Iraq to talk to Gen. Ray Odierno, the new top commander there, and other senior U.S. military personnel about the role of UAVs.

During last spring's fight for Sadr City, for instance, UAVs including the Predator and the RQ-7 Shadow proved instrumental in finding and destroying insurgent targets. Cameras on the aircraft help commanders on the ground see and map out a wide area of operations with their "persistent surveillance" capability.

Stahl's report shows rare footage of the weaponry in action as the military pursued "fleeting and perishable" targets.

U.S. officials credit the high-tech aerial systems as among the top reasons that violence in Iraq dropped so dramatically this year. And earlier this year, although still a young technology, the Predator and the Shadow were among the half-dozen UAVs recognized with an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution.

The Predator--with its "snowmobile" engine and unobtrusive presence--has also become a favored tool of the CIA. Take a closer look in the January 2003 video below, from the 60 Minutes archives.

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