CCLaP Fridays: Predator: the Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution, by Richard Whittle


Predator: the Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution
By Richard Whittle
Henry Holt and Company
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

Drone warfare. Those two words unleash a maelstrom of outrage, hysteria, and paranoia. Former Pentagon correspondent Richard Whittle traces the development and deployment of the Predator drone in Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution. He takes us into the shadowy territory of covert operations, military procurement, and new weapons development. Despite this being a history of covert military operations and groundbreaking inventions, this isn’t about triumphalist saber-rattling or wallowing in the throes of cheap patriotism. Whittle does offer enthusiastic moments of gee-whiz technological innovation, but this is tempered with a grounded objectivity gained from years working as a journalist.

(Predator can be read in concert with other intelligence histories like The Puzzle Palace, Body of Secrets, and The Shadow Factory, all by James Bamford, about the National Security Agency.)

To the general public, drone warfare is a new thing. Whittle traces drone warfare back all the way to the Second World War. Drones originated as remote-controlled and unmanned aircraft. An early experiment included claimed the life of Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., eldest brother of JFK. He flew an explosives laden Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress into enemy territory. Ideally, after parachuting to safety, the unmanned B-17 would fly to its target destination. Unmanned aircraft and primitive drones were also used by the Army and Air Force for target practice. As with any new technology, there was institutional and bureaucratic resistance. When General Atomics, the manufacturer of the earliest Predator, proposed its use to the armed services, it met with universal rejection. The Army preferred using helicopters; the Air Force scoffed, devoted as it was to the cult of the fighter pilot; and the Navy had better things to do.

Then history intervened. In this case, the civil wars resulting from the breakup of Yugoslavia. A combination of reconnaissance needs, mountainous landscape, and budget constraints came into play. Unlike spy satellites and stealth recon planes (SR-71 and U-2), the drone could linger. Not just for hours, but for days. Unseen and unheard by enemy forces, it could paint a target (laser-sight it) for an air-strike.

Technological change brings institutional change. But institutional change was neither gradual nor immediately accepted. For decades intelligence analysts pored over still photographs. This was the case with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the CIA interpreting what those small rectangles were on the Cuban island. Trucks? Nukes? Then, all of a sudden, with the Predator, the CIA and the Pentagon were getting live streaming video. The analysts literally didn’t know what to do with the information. Along with this embarrassment of riches came the usual hiccups. One of the unsung heroes of the drone revolution is a techno-scientist named Werner (he prefers to remain anonymous). Like Q from James Bond, he continually develops new technologies or workarounds for issues with the drone. In its earliest conception, the drone was piloted with line-of-sight technology, so the GCS (ground control station) had to remain nearby. Werner created a workaround where it could take off and land via a GCS, but in the interim fly via satellite. (Whittle goes into detail about the various hand-offs and the technical specifications involving different bandwidths.) This is astonishing. Not only does the drone remove the pilot from the craft, but with this innovation, the drone can be handed off to different pilots in a different geographical location!

Despite the caricatures given to drone warfare by critics, piloting the drone isn’t the same as waging war via Playstation. There is a pilot and a sensor operator. As a consequence of its reconnaissance capabilities, drone pilots could see figures running away after a successful hit. (Note: Due to technological limitations, they could see figures, not individual faces.) But because of this, many were emotionally shaken by their duties. Drone pilots came closer to snipers than bomber pilots dropping their payloads at 30,000 feet.

When drones became weaponized during the Afghanistan campaign, the drone was outfitted with the twenty-pound Hellfire missile. In its first operation, it spotted and tracked Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader. Unfortunately, due to a snarled chain of command, the drone never fired its missile on the target. After this farcical mishap, the chain of command for drone operations was streamlined. But this left a big unanswered question: Who would pull the trigger? In addition, who would be held responsible for any assassinations by Predator drone? The CIA was reluctant to seize responsibility due to the longtime ban on assassinations.

Whittle takes us through the corridors of power and the clashes between Predator advocates and gun-shy politicians. Richard Clarke, the counter-terrorism advisor in the National Security Council, badgering Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush to hunt down Osama bin Laden. Clinton became gun-shy of drone warfare following the botched Sudan bombing of a pharmaceuticals plant. Bush and company brushed off Clarke to focus on Iraq to the point of it becoming a perverse fetish. Clinton’s reluctance was tragic, Bush’s Iraq obsession was farce. Then 9/11 happened.

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Bush Administration’s reluctance vanished. The Predator racked up a sizable list of hits, including Al-Qaeda’s #3 Mohammad Atef. But it’s not all wine and roses for unmanned warfare. The Obama Administration has expanded drone warfare to an alarming degree. Drones have hit targets in Yemen and Syria, both places where the United States has not declared war in an any official capacity. Part of this involves who pulls the trigger on the drone. Currently, the CIA has control over Predator operations, but critics have said it would make more sense for the Pentagon to have control. There are also legal, moral, political, and diplomatic questions that remain unanswered. With Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent statement saying ISIS will involve “thirty years of war,” these questions better get resolved quick.

Drones are cost-effective long-range reconnaissance and ground-attack weapons. They remove the pilot from immediate danger. They also open a Pandora’s Box of issues. The technology makes them capable of long-range assassinations, raining death from above in a darkly ironic twist to the planes hijacked by Al-Qaeda. But every technology is only as good as its user.

Out of 10/9.0

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