After lurking for hours above the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the Predator drone found its target: a truck surrounded by a group of suspected al-Qaeda terrorists who had been threading their way along precarious mountain roads amid 11,000-ft. peaks. From several miles away, the unmanned surveillance plane, operated by the CIA last Monday, locked in on the gathering. An agent somewhere in the region, viewing a live feed from the Predator's belly-mounted camera, thought the men were wearing Arab--not Afghan--garb, and that the leader was tall. After conferring with U.S. Central Command officials at their Florida headquarters, the agent signaled the Predator to shoot. A 100-lb. Hellfire missile roared toward the truck at nearly 1,000 m.p.h. According to Amanullah Zadran, a minister in the Afghan government, the dead included three local al-Qaeda members. Local tribal leaders claimed, however, the dead were not al-Qaeda. On Saturday, a team of 50 U.S. troops at the attack site began looking for evidence under a deep blanket of snow.
The tall man is not thought to have been Osama bin Laden, as the CIA had hoped. But he is believed to have been al-Qaeda--and the missile appeared to score a direct hit on him, a Pentagon official told TIME. It still isn't clear whether any innocents were wounded or killed. But if this Predator attack was like dozens of others in Afghanistan, it was a surgical strike on a terrorist target--and a case study in the new American way of waging war: killing foes by remote control, with no risk to U.S. troops, through an extraordinary convergence of intelligence, technology and high-explosive warheads.
Seven thousand miles away on the very same day, the Pentagon was firing a more old-fashioned round on Capitol Hill--a five-year, $2 trillion budget plan larded with cold war-era weapons. There's the Crusader howitzer, a cannon so cumbersome that in 2000 a presidential candidate named George W. Bush questioned its utility. And there's the F-22 Raptor, a fighter jet designed to challenge a Soviet air force that no longer exists. The Raptor could prove useful against other foes, but critics call it redundant; there are two other fighter designs in the pipeline as well. Yet the Pentagon wants to spend $5.3 billion to build 23 Raptors and budgets only $100 million for 22 new Predator drones, even though U.S. commanders have been pleading with the brass for more. The Predator is "getting nickels and dimes, while traditional programs like manned jets are getting the tens and twenties," says Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a private military think tank.