DURING the Gulf war, US military leaders were so impressed with the performance of unmanned spy planes that they decided the technology was the future of warfare.
Since then, the Pentagon has launched a wide range of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) programs, from tiny battlefield scanners hardly larger than toys to long-range models meant to supplement satellite eyes-in-the-sky. Test UAVs have already spent long hours in the air over Bosnia.
But five years and almost $700 million later, one of the most ambitious UAV projects ever undertaken, the Hunter, has yet to really get off the ground. The Hunter has crashed more than 20 times since testing began in southeastern Arizona in 1991 and now faces cancellation.
Although no one was hurt nor any buildings struck in the crashes, one did result in an embarrassing international incident. In 1993, a wayward Hunter took off over Mexico and flew 750 miles before running out of gas and diving into the Pacific Ocean. Some Mexican officials were concerned the plane was sent to spy on their country.
Experts cite a number of reasons for the crashes, including human error, software glitches, and mechanical failure. ''It seems like every time they fix one problem, another comes up,'' says Louis Rodrigues, who has written several critical reports on the Hunter for the General Accounting Office, Congress's investigative arm.
But on a deeper level, some analysts say, the Hunter's troubles reflect fundamental flaws in the weapons acquisition process. They say Pentagon officials and defense contractors tend to gloss over problems in the testing and design phase in order to get a system into production.
''Then it becomes a jobs program, takes on a life of its own, and it's almost impossible to kill,'' says Mr. Rodrigues, who adds that the Hunter should never have gone into production until all the bugs were worked out.
Pentagon officials contend they believed the bugs had been worked out, and that they put the Hunter into production because they needed it right away. TRW officials say crashes are inevitable during the development of new technology, and that the Hunter's difficulties have been overblown.
The military had originally planned to buy 400 Hunters, and the systems to run them, at a cost of more than $4 billion. But last fall, after three crashes in a month, production was suspended at 56 planes and officials have not yet decided whether to resume.
The suspension led the contractor, TRW, to lay off about 100 workers at its plant in Sierra Vista, Ariz., and the 120 who remain face an uncertain future.
The GAO has recommended the Pentagon quit buying Hunters until TRW can demonstrate that all the problems have been fixed. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have recommended killing the project outright.
The Hunter is a 23-foot long, twin-engine aircraft equipped with a high-powered, day or night camera that can instantly relay information up to 100 miles away. Although made for commanders in the field, it also has potential civilian uses, such as monitoring the border or searching for people lost in remote areas.
Ironically, the Hunter's versatility may be working against it. Experts say that weapons systems designed for use by several branches of the armed forces, like the Hunter, tend to have weak support.
''When you're putting together a joint system, everyone has to give a little. Then, when something goes wrong, they say, 'Well, it's not what we wanted anyway,' '' says Kevin Goates, business manager at TRW in Sierra Vista.
The Navy, for example, was supposed to fly Hunters off of its ships. Now commanders say the Hunter takes up too much space and doesn't fly far enough, among other problems, and they don't want it anymore.
Even if the Hunter worked perfectly, some believe it would still face a tough battle for acceptance from a military that traditionally resists unmanned technology.
''It's a cultural thing,'' says Lawrence Korb, senior defense analyst at the Brookings Institution. ''They're afraid of people asking why they have 2 million on the payroll when all they need is six guys pushing buttons.''
Despite resistance by some pilots and military officials, and the problems with the Hunter, experts like Mr. Korb remain enthusiastic about the potential of unmanned technology.
''In the next war, we could have people in Arizona flying drones over Bosnia,'' he says.
Local officials in Sierra Vista, although disappointed by the layoffs at TRW, also say they still believe in the planes' economic potential and are trying to recruit other drone manufacturers to the area.
They haven't given up on salvaging the Hunter, either. At the request of Sierra Vista City Councilman Harold Vangilder, US Rep. Jim Kolbe and Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl have urged Pentagon officials not to cancel the program.
Mr. Vangilder says he acted not only out of concern for local jobs, but because he believes it will be cheaper in the long run to fix the Hunter than to kill it and start over. ''I only want to save it if it makes sense to save it,'' he says. ''I'm a taxpayer too.''