In 1995, when Air Force Col. James Clark was based in Hungary as part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission, he got a chance to play with a Gnat, a remotely piloted glider powered by a skimobile engine. Drone aircraft—or, as the Air Force prefers, unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs—were not unprecedented. In World War II, radio-controlled B-24s were sent on bombing missions over Germany. Remotely controlled aircraft carried still cameras over battlefields in Vietnam. The Israeli Army used drones for surveillance and as decoys over Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in 1982. But the Gnat, developed by the San Diego defense contractor General Atomics, carried something new: video cameras.
“We were flying out of Taszár,” Clark recalls. “We had three or four over there, in kind of a base....The commander at Taszár could see movement from 60 miles away. It was so successful they just never came home.”
Soldiers had long coveted the ability to see over the next hill. Manned aircraft delivered that, from gas-filled balloons in the Civil War and from airplanes in the 20th century, but only until the pilot or his fuel was exhausted. Satellites provide an amazing panorama but they are expensive, few in number and not always overhead when needed. The Gnat gave commanders a 60-mile panorama from a platform that could stay airborne more or less permanently, with vehicles flown in 12-hour shifts. Renamed the Predator, it quickly became the U.S. military’s preferred surveillance tool.
It was a Predator mission that located Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2000, after Al Qaeda had been tied to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. But efforts to act on that intelligence were frustrated by the complexities of launching a raid and by concerns about the risks to U.S. troops and civilians. In exasperation, national security officials began asking: Why can’t we put a missile on a drone?
Initial testing of beefed-up, missile-equipped drones was completed in 2001, and soon after the September 11 attacks the first weaponized Predators, armed with Hellfire missiles and designated MQ-1L, were flying over Kabul and Kandahar. The one pictured here was deployed in Afghanistan, where it became the first drone to fire Hellfires in combat. In all, it flew 261 sorties in Afghanistan, totaling more than 2,700 hours, before the Air Force donated it to the Air and Space Museum in 2003.
And yet the most important breakthrough was still to come. The original drones broadcast a view only to operators on the ground. As the United States continued to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, the drones’ cameras and sensors were linked to the global telecommunications system. Now a drone could be piloted—and its live feed viewed and its missiles aimed—from anywhere in the world. The pilots could be insulated from the risks of combat.
The U.S. military quickly mounted “caps,” or permanent observation platforms, over large areas. Using computers to analyze data feeding continuously from drones, military and spy agencies isolated and tracked targets night and day. Whole enemy networks could be mapped simply by following a target’s moves and contacts over time, tying together visual imagery with other kinds of intelligence—intercepted phone calls, e-mails, text messages and so on. Munitions could be fired at the time and place of a drone operator’s choosing.
“Drones are the most discriminating use of force that has ever been developed,” says Richard Pildes, a professor of constitutional law at New York University’s School of Law. “The key principles of the laws of war are necessity, distinction and proportionality in the use of force. Drone attacks and targeted killings serve these principles better than any use of force that can be imagined.”
While drones have triggered robust controversy, the technology can in principle greatly reduce the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths. Like any new weapon system, drones pose difficult questions. Members of Congress, human rights lawyers and counterterrorism officials have asked exactly how intelligence and military officials make targeting decisions, how such attacks affect the way civilian populations feel toward the United States and how these attacks comport with international law.
“I think creating a legal structure, processes, with oversight checks on how we use unmanned weapons is going to be a challenge for me and for my successors for some time to come,” President Barack Obama has said.
Still, U.S. Air Force pilots training to fly drones outnumber those training to fly piloted aircraft.
“Right now, we think of drones as military tools,” says Mark Bowden, of the unmanned aircraft, “but we’re going to see them used in a broad variety of ways in the coming years.” Bowden is the author of ten books, including The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, published last year, and Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War.