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Rebirthing the Unmanned Craft: The Untold History of Drone Use

The evolution of today’s drone occurred over some five decades.

Photo Credit: Paul Fleet/Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from Shadow Warfare: The History of America's Undeclared Wars. Copyright © 2014 by Larry Hancock and Stuart Wexler. Reprinted with permission of Counterpoint Press.

During the last few years, first with the ongoing global War on Terror and then with their continued evolution – and commercialization, drones have constantly been in the media. They have all the appearances of being something contemporary, something new, something developed virtually on demand following 9/11.  Much contemporary writing on “drones” seems to consider that both unarmed surveillance and “weaponized” or armed drones—remotely targeted in real time—are something quite new. In reality they are decades old and have been both lost and found to America’s military and intelligence services on a number of occasions since the Second World War.

Drones did not just appear with the War on Terror, they became a significant military asset during the War in Vietnam, decades ago.  In fact, militarized, remote controlled aerial weapons had been tested far earlier, during World War II. The Germans had deployed a variety of radio-controlled glide bombs during the Second World War, but the Allies quickly countered them with a suite of jamming techniques. In response, German scientists equipped a variant of the Henschel Hs 294 glide bomb with a television transmitter. The bomb could be remotely guided towards its target by visual imaging. Problems with over-controlling (causing the image to jump all over the TV screen) immediately surfaced and the television version reportedly never was used in combat. During the 1960s the U.S. successfully deployed a television-controlled glide bomb: the Martin Marietta “Walleye.” The Walleye became the first of a series of precision guided munitions (“smart bombs”). In May 1967, Navy pilots began using the television guided bombs and in one attack scored a direct hit on Hanoi’s main power station. A second raid knocked the plant out of operation. But more important to the drone story, Vietnam saw the introduction of a series of unmanned, highly capable “spy planes” built and supported in operations by the Ryan Aeronautical Company.

Over time the term “Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV)” would evolve first into Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), then Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), then Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV)—with all of them ultimately becoming generically referred to as “drones.” The evolution of today’s advanced unmanned ISR (Intelligence collection, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) craft as well as remotely controlled weapons carrying drones occurred over some five decades, beginning with the awarding, in 1960, of a USAF contract of only $200,000 to Ryan Aeronautical for the adaptation of its Firebee target drones for “unmanned, remotely guided photographic surveillance” missions.

The modest project, known as Red Wagon, immediately ran into tough sledding at the Pentagon. Future Defense Secretary Harold Brown, at the time the Pentagon’s chief weapons consultant, delayed the project by a full year and a half; ironically, years later it would be Brown who would frequently discuss how cruise missiles would revolutionize warfare. The Assistant Secretary of the Air Force verbally ordered the project canceled, but never issued a written order to that effect. So, the project proceeded, sustained by the obvious challenges highlighted in both low-level and high-altitude photo reconnaissance over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

During eight years of Southeast Asian combat, the Ryan Aeronautical Company fielded a family of craft with over twenty-five variants for special tasks including both photographic and electronic intelligence collection. It was a new technology: many flights produced useless photographs, others were shot down or simply failed to return for pickup. The first twenty-seven-foot “big wing” version became operational in 1965, used for high-altitude daylight photography. Nighttime photography began in 1967 and low-altitude photographic work began in 1967 and 1968. Versions with real-time television feeds were launched in 1972 and real-time data transmission began in 1974 and 1975. Eventually the H and T versions would obtain a high-altitude capability of up to 75,000 feet, carry fuel for over four hours of flight, and be able to photograph a strip twenty-two miles wide over some eight hundred miles. Real-time video through nose cameras would be added along with real-time data streaming of electronic and signals intelligence collection data.

The success of Ryan’s craft under actual combat conditions, their technological progress, and the number of models fielded in a short time were nothing short of amazing. The capabilities of those variants were equally impressive. The first model had a range of some twelve hundred miles, photo capability from 55,000 feet, and imaging resolution of two feet from that altitude. New variants provided continuous low-level, high-quality photography of denied areas and moved into offensive armed combat mode by launching both Maverick and Hobo “smart” bombs.

Ryan also developed the capability for its jet engine craft to be carried and launched from C-130 Hercules aircraft. That air deployment potential greatly extended their range and mission flexibility. In one mission, a Ryan RPV was carried by aircraft out of Kadena, Japan, launched near Hainan Island off the south China coast, and completed its mission over China, recovered in Taiwan. Ultimately a C-130 aircraft was configured to carry four RPVs for operational missions. The RPVs could be removed on land or even in midair at the end of its mission. Ryan even developed the capability for ship-based launch of the craft.

The RPVs were strikingly successful, scoring firsts in many areas of photography, electronic and signals intelligence, and unmanned aerial attacks. Some three thousand missions were flown over not only North Vietnam but covertly over Laos and China. And after the war was over—much like anything not related to large-scale, conventional warfare—the whole technology was virtually forgotten. In his comprehensive book Lightning Bugs and other Reconnaissance Drones, William Wagner wrote that as of 1982, not a single RPV was operational, although the original Ryan Firebee target drones were still flying. Of course it had been Strategic Air Command that had benefited most from the classified “Lightning Bug” operation. SAC’s interest had been in reconnaissance, bombing missions, and saving pilot lives. Some five thousand airmen had been killed and over a thousand were missing in action during the Vietnam conflict. In contrast, 3,435 RPV missions had been flown, with some 554 of them lost in action and no lives lost.

The Vietnam War ended and the remotely piloted vehicles were scrapped. National security returned to a Cold War posture and by 1981, the U.S. military just wasn’t thinking about RPVs, it was thinking about improved ICBMs, neutron weapons, and a much bigger Navy. Still, a few individuals were a bit more foresighted, if not immediately influential. Dr. Edward Teller, most often referred to as the father of atomic weapons, was one of those individuals. In 1981 he provided testimony to the General Accounting Office review of the potential of RPVs. Teller was once again on the money with his prediction, “The unmanned vehicle today is a technology akin to the importance of radars and computers in 1935.”

Actually Dr. Teller was only a bit ahead of real-world events. By the end of that same decade at least a few unmanned air vehicles were again in action with the military in the Gulf War. They were a far cry from what Ryan had flown in Southeast Asia. The Gulf War remotely piloted vehicles were largely derivative of small battlefield camera systems first flown successfully by the Israeli Army. The U.S. Navy, Marines, and Army operated two types in the Gulf. The more sophisticated—Pioneer, an Israeli development—was some fourteen feet long and powered by a 26-horsepower snowmobile engine. It had a range of approximately one hundred miles and a flight time of five hours. It was launched by catapult and carried a video camera that could take high-quality pictures from two thousand feet and transmit them some hundred miles. The Navy flew about one hundred RPV missions during the Gulf War, primarily for target spotting and damage assessment of its long-range battleship gun bombardments. The Marines flew ninety-four and the Army forty-eight. The Gulf War RPVs were in support of conventional combat on well-defined battlefields and flown under the shield of total air superiority. They were useful but their limited range and flying times prevented them from being a true solution for real-time, flexible combat intelligence in remote areas—much less a flexible attack system capable of remaining on station over hours or even days.

The CIA continued to be interested in an “endurance” class aerial platform and followed a Defense Department project (Teal Rain) that was initially conducted with Leading Systems, Inc. The craft under consideration used a four-cylinder engine with a pusher propeller; it was nicknamed “Amber.” Amber was being developed for reconnaissance, electronic intelligence collection, and potential use as a low-cost cruise missile. The basic Amber platform was flown in 1986. It was especially interesting to the CIA because it offered an extended “loiter” time of some thirty-eight hours, and had a range of approximately twelve hundred miles. It was also equipped with a two-way data link and a nose-mounted television camera, which added a real-time control capability. That sort of true remote control meant that information could not only be passed back to an intelligence center but that an Amber-type craft could have weapons capability added and used to actually carry out an attack after its intelligence had been analyzed and targets identified.                    

Amber was able to fly for almost forty hours and continued to be studied as a type of low-cost cruise missile platform. Some seven Amber craft were built, and by 1989 the Army had conducted field trials with three of them. Seven were delivered to the government but in 1990 the whole program was canceled, reportedly due to budget constraints. The original company that had developed Amber went into serious financial difficulties at that time and was acquired by General Atomics. General Atomics continued the unmanned aerial vehicle (by then simply known as UAV) project on its own, building a refined version of Amber designated the “GNAT.”

In 1993, the Joint Chiefs needed a short-term solution for surveillance in the Bosnian UN peacekeeping operation and turned to the GNAT. Because military procurement was so slow, the program was turned over to the CIA, and in 1994 the Agency flew GNAT missions in Bosnia from a base in Albania. In the meantime, General Atomics continued development and produced next generation of UAVs—the Predator and the Global Hawk. There seems to be a bit of confusion over whether the craft flown in Bosnia was an upgraded variant of the GNAT or actually the first generation of its followup, the Predator; very possibly both craft were used.

According to CIA Officer Henry Crumpton—who was personally involved in pre–9/11 CIA activities in Afghanistan—the CIA’s Special Activities Division had been enthused over an early unmanned aerial vehicle–type of more limited capabilities and no satellite data link. It was certainly an improvement for remote intelligence collection, but never could have been turned into a truly interactive weapon under remote control. But in 2000, marching orders came from CIA Director Tenet to go after Al-Qaeda and bin Laden. A deadline of nine months was set to put a remote intelligence operation in Afghanistan and a budget of $5 million allocated to a UAV. The CIA turned to General Atomics, and a Predator reportedly left over from use in Bosnia.

In the meantime, the Air Force had begun tests of arming the Predator—using the “Big Safari” rapid procurement program discussed previously. The armed variant had to have reinforced wings, weapons pylons, and a laser designator as well as remote video imaging and firing control. As early as February 2001, supersonic Hellfire missiles had been successfully fired. The CIA wanted armed Predators for Afghanistan and its bin Laden hunt. Even with a rush program in place, the armed versions were not available in the fall of 2001, but some sixty Predators were used in the post–9/11 Afghan military campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

From that point on, the Predator and its variants, first the Predator B (redesignated as the MQ-9 Reaper) would become synonymous with antiterrorist, clandestine operations. Reaper versions of the Predator have a much more powerful turboprop engine, which allows them to carry about fifteen times more weaponry and cruise at over three times the speed of the initial MQ-1 Predator. Some thirty-six feet long, with a wingspan of sixty-five feet and a payload of almost four thousand pounds, the Reaper can cruise at around two hundred miles per hour for some fourteen hours, with a range of over 1,100 miles, and a service ceiling of 50,000 feet.

Using hard points on the Reaper’s wings, Hellfire missiles as well as Paveway II and Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM bombs) are carried for air launch. As of 2013, the next generation of extended-range Predator B drones is anticipated to have both a significantly improved mission radius of some 2,900 nautical miles and a potential of staying airborne for two to three times longer, possibly over forty hours. While the Predator drones do have attack capability, their primary use is in surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence collection. It is the MQ-9 Reaper that ultimately became the Joint Special Operation Command’s primary “hunter/killer” tool. Over time the Reaper was used extensively during the Iraq War, with only six in service as of 2006, some fifty-four were in action by 2010; that year also represented the peak inventory of Predators, with 174 available.

The Predator is virtually ideal for use in regions that do not have interceptor aircraft or extensive antiaircraft weapons, yet neither the Predator nor the Reaper is truly comparable to the Vietnam-era Ryan RPVs in terms of range and intelligence collection options. Currently the U.S. Air Force operates the Global Hawk family of craft for the types of high-altitude, extended-range missions that were first conducted in Southeast Asia. Such missions are much more ambitious and demanding in terms of overall intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) equipment suites. The Global Hawk craft have a wingspan of 130 feet, turbofan jet engines, a ceiling of some 65,000 feet, and a range of over 15,000 miles. They carry extensive real-time sensor suites and represent the currently operational successor to the host of innovative firsts flown by Ryan Aeronautical. The Global Hawks are expensive to operate though, and in 2013, the Air Force proposed to decrease their inventory and return to manned U-2 aircraft for a number of the missions being performed by the Global Hawks.

The drone’s day has come, gone and come again. Whenever the military turned its focus to large scale, conventional warfare, the drones faded into the background; when the need for remote, highly targeted action returned – so did the drones.  Given the new commercial applications driving drone development, from law enforcement and security applications to personal entertainment, it seems more likely that this time around they will be with us for a good bit longer than in the past. 

Larry Hancock graduated from the University of New Mexico with a triple major in anthropology, history, and education. He has worked on a variety of historical research projects, including November Patriots and Someone Would Have Talked.

Stuart Wexler graduated from Tulane University with a degree in history. He now lives and teaches high school in New Jersey, where he won the prestigious James Madison Teachers' Fellowship in 2010. Together with Hancock, he co-write "The Awful Grace of God."