WASHINGTON - Is it a bird? Is it a plane?
If Iraqi soldiers realize that it's actually another unmanned aerial vehicle, they may do what their comrades did in a legendary episode during the first Persian Gulf War in 1991:
Surrender to it.
UAVs are small, remotely controlled aircraft like the Predator, which used that Hellfire Missile last November to destroy a carload of suspected terrorists in Yemen.
And their live TV camera images just might have played a role in tracking down Iraqi leadership for that military strike on Baghdad that opened the new gulf war.
American forces in Operation Desert Storm 12 years ago had just one kind of these remote-controlled aircraft. The first-generation “Pioneer” vehicle flew more than 300 combat missions, using a camera to beam live targeting and reconnaissance images back to controllers.
“We have in excess of eight different types of UAV systems supporting the war-fighter,” said Dyke Weatherington, a specialist in the U. S. Department of Defense's Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Task Force.
That is a greater variety of UAVs than ever has been used in combat before, he added at a Pentagon briefing.
The Air Force has the Predator and the Global Hawk, for instance. The Army is using the Shadow and the Hunter, and the Marine Corps has an advanced version of Pioneer and the new Dragon Eye.
“And there are a number of other systems that I won't identify specifically that are deployed,” Mr. Weatherington added.
Among them may be the first of a new generation of extremely small, remote-controlled aircraft called Micro Air Vehicles.
Plans for the vehicles, described in a 1997 report by James M. McMichael, who managed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency micro-vehicle program, envisioned a plane barely 6 inches long.
It would weigh just a few ounces, have a range of six miles, and top speed of 45 mph.
Predator, in contrast, is 27 feet long and weighs 1,130 pounds. Pioneer is 14 feet long and weighs more than 400 pounds.
The smallest conventional UAV, named the “Sender” and developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, weighs 10 pounds, has a 4-foot wingspan, and range of 100 miles.
If MAVs are being used in Iraq, they may look and fly more like humming birds or insects than the Sender or other traditional aircraft.
“You can't just shrink a 747 proportionately down to six inches and expect it to fly,” said Dr. Samuel Blankenship, who coordinated a microflyer research program at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The smaller an aircraft becomes, the more skittish it acts, responding differently to wind, rain, and even air itself. New designs may be required to make microflyers airworthy.
One futuristic microflyer, envisioned by Georgia Tech engineer Robert Michaelson, looks like a mechanical dragonfly and bears the imposing name, Reciprocating Chemical Muscle-Driven Multimode Entomopter.
Mr. McMichael's report suggested that such designs might not be so far out.
“MAVs may require more unusual configurations and approaches ranging from low-aspect fixed wings to rotary wings or even more radical notions like flapping wings,” he wrote.
The first MAVs probably would be able to remain aloft for an hour while transmitting TV-quality images back to their base station. Their payload - cameras, sensors, miniweapons - would be a whopping 20 grams, just under one ounce.
They could have a key role if house-to-house warfare is necessary in Iraq.
“In urban operations, MAVs, acting in small, cooperative groups, will enable reconnaissance and surveillance of inner city areas, and may serve as communications relays,” Mr. McMichael wrote.
The tiny vehicles may actually fly through open windows, and navigate the hallways and passages of buildings, he said. MAV could become real-life versions of the proverbial “fly on the wall,” landing unseen on a book shelf or floor.
From that vantage point, they could transmit back pictures of people inside; eavesdrop on conversations; plant “bugs,” electronic eavesdropping devices; use sensors to check for nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, and perform other tasks.
Regular-size drones being used in Iraq incorporate versatile new features not available in Operation Desert Storm.
The Global Hawk, for instance, can fly at altitudes of 65,000 feet for up to 24 hours while taking pictures that detail objects as small as three feet in diameter. In one day, it can survey an area equivalent to the state of Illinois.
Dragon Eye, the Marines' new UAV, can be stored in a backpack, assembled in the field of battle, and sent on one-hour missions to beam back live pictures of enemy positions.
A spokesman for the U. S. Navy confirmed that Iraqi troops really did surrender to a UAV during Operation Desert Storm.
The incident occurred when the USS Wisconsin sent her Pioneer vehicle over an island off the coast of Kuwait City to pick targets for a barrage with her 16-inch guns, which fire a 2,000-pound round.
Controllers intentionally flew the Pioneer low, so the buzz of its two-cycle engine would let the Iraqis know that they were being targeted.
“The Iraqis made the right choice, and using handkerchiefs, undershirts, and bed sheets signaled to the UAV's camera their desire to surrender,” the Navy spokesman said.