Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Armed drones are far older than Tom thinks: A short history of the UAV 4 U

What if they gave a war and nobody came? We are learning the answer to that old question, and it ain’t what the flower children thought. In other UAV news, I see where an F-18 made a UAV-like landing on the USS Eisenhower. There was a pilot in the plane but he kept his hands ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

What if they gave a war and nobody came? We are learning the answer to that old question, and it ain't what the flower children thought.

In other UAV news, I see where an F-18 made a UAV-like landing on the USS Eisenhower. There was a pilot in the plane but he kept his hands off the controls. Look ma!

What if they gave a war and nobody came? We are learning the answer to that old question, and it ain’t what the flower children thought.

In other UAV news, I see where an F-18 made a UAV-like landing on the USS Eisenhower. There was a pilot in the plane but he kept his hands off the controls. Look ma!

By Joseph Trevithick
Best Defense department of robotic military history

The arming of drones really hits at a number of disparate issues. The U.S. Navy had actually fielded a rotary wing anti-submarine warfare drone in the 1960s that could attack targets with torpedoes. Under the direction of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA; what is now the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA) a small number of these drones were fitted with machine guns, automatic grenade launchers, rockets, and other weapons, and used experimentally during the conflict in Vietnam. The results of these tests were generally favorable, but went nowhere. The Navy ceased operating the Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH), designated the QH-50, in 1970. Japan also used the QH-50 in the anti-submarine warfare role.

The first USAF experiments with armed drones were conducted in the 1970s and the results were extremely positive. The U.S. Air Force as an institution, however, has been and still is very reluctant to explore the full potential of armed drones. What they have done recently is more in response to the use of armed drones by the intelligence community, by the U.S. Army, and by the U.S. Navy, and prodding from civilian leadership.

For the USAF, the issue of unmanned drones as a replacement for combat aircraft hits hard at the arguments that led to them becoming a separate service in the first place. The USAF has a serious fear that unmanned aerial vehicles will lead to an "Air Force" led by individuals who have never flown anything. Uniformed USAF leadership is almost entirely comprised of pilots. As the top USAF brass sees it, the USAF flies things, and it doesn’t fly them from mil-vans in Nevada. The U.S.  Army has less of a problem with this as its top leadership has generally not come from the aviation branch. The U.S.  Navy and U.S. Marine Corps are similarly more accepting of UAVs.

The success the U.S.  Army is having in deploying their own organic armed drone units might well prove the deciding factor in really pushing the USAF to make greater use of such things. The USAF has generally responded vigorously to defend its turf from anything it sees as an attempt by the U.S. Army trying to claim its roles and missions. This has, since the 1960s, caused the USAF to make 180 degree policy turns on numerous systems and capabilities that it has previously expressed either no interest or negative interest in.

I agree though, that drone strikes in general rarely make the front page. Unlike the cruise missile strikes or large air operations of old, they’ve so frequently employed as to become not newsworthy. Perhaps this is the real change drones are having. With their ability to provide a more persistent coverage of a target and be more consistently used without the need for a large build-up, it’s easier to sweep them under the rug so to speak. 

Joseph Trevithick , a research associate at GlobalSecurity.org, holds a master’s degree from the Georgetown University in conflict resolution.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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