The South Asia Channel

Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution

Richard Whittle, Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2014.  Pakistani intelligence officers are claiming that on Saturday, July 19 of this year, a U.S. drone fired missiles into Pakistan’s North Waziristan agency, killing eleven members of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. This attack came on the heels of a similar ...

Deb Smith/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images
Deb Smith/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images

Richard Whittle, Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2014. 

Pakistani intelligence officers are claiming that on Saturday, July 19 of this year, a U.S. drone fired missiles into Pakistan’s North Waziristan agency, killing eleven members of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. This attack came on the heels of a similar attack the prior Wednesday, which killed fifteen people. While such attacks are still news-worthy, they hardly make the front page, having become a more or less routine event.

In Predator, Richard Whittle gives us a long and drawn out tale of the origins of the Predator unmanned aircraft, or "drone."  The tale is not drawn out because Whittle is an inferior writer, but because the story is one of delay, lack of vision, and frustration. Whittle’s book is about the Predator, but it can –and should — be read as a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks that a new technology can easily be brought into the military (or, to be fair, any government agency).

Whittle begins with the father, or fathers, of the Predator. The first, the "genius" by Whittle’s account, is an Israeli named Abraham Karem. Karem — a brash iconoclast –believed that drones were the last type of aircraft that could be engineered by a lone inventor working in his garage. Working from nature’s model of the albatross –the bird best "designed" for gliding and soaring — Karem arrived at the epiphany that an RPV should have an extremely wide wingspan. Karem, funded with seed money from DARPA, built an initial prototype in 1983 that could stay aloft for at least 48 hours. However, Karem was unable to convince anyone in the Pentagon to fund his invention, and in 1990 he went bankrupt trying to prove his concept was viable.

Karem’s designs were purchased by the second father of the Predator, Neal Blue of General Atomics, who had also seen the potential of unmanned aircraft and had been developing drones of his own  (though envisioning them more as GPS-guided aerial bombs, rather than delivery platforms).

Whittle then crafts a long and inglorious tale of woe about the inability of the Pentagon to see the value of unmanned aircraft. As Whittle puts it: "…the Air Force and Navy seemed to regard drones as a threat, the Marine Corps lacked enough money to develop them on its own, and most Army leaders viewed the technology warily…."

However, military needs would eventually prevail. The requirement for observation in the Balkans in the 1990s would eventually force the military to develop the system, giving proponency to the Air Force, which pushed it into a secretive "skunk works" unit known as Big Safari. However, even this special unit, under the command of an iconoclast Air Force officer known as "Snake" Clark, had difficulty getting a laser designation capability through the bureaucracy. Nor could they manage to arm the new system — now known as the Predator– until shortly before 9/11. The first lethal Hellfire would be fired in Afghanistan on October 8, 2001. By 2010, all the services would have their own unmanned aircraft and the major defense industry giants, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Textron and others, would be scrambling to catch up with the General Atomics products. Further, military success with the unmanned systems would inspire civilian imitators, most famously Google, which bought its own drone-producing company in April and Amazon, which promised delivery by drones , despite regulatory hurdles.

The story certainly has a happy ending, unless you are an al Qaeda member (or one of the civilians killed as collateral damage that Whittle also discusses). But in the course of the book, one can often lose sight of the long timeline that is involved. Just to restate, Abe Karam demonstrated the initial capability of drone technology in the fall of 1983. But in July 2001, the weaponized Predator was still being debugged. Eighteen years from initial test capability to a full operational weapon system –. and this despite being fast-tracked in a specialized unit and getting a final boost from the 9/11 attacks.

So read Predator for the fascinating story of how the unmanned aerial vehicle revolution came about, but be particularly conscious of the time line. Then think about the next technological advance and ask yourself if you think if it is doing any better inside the Pentagon. The answer is probably not.  Nor will other agencies necessarily do better. Wittle notes without comment that with regard to the Predator, "neither the CIA nor the military wanted to take responsibility for pulling the trigger, and neither wanted to pay for the program."

Predator is then best read as a cautionary tale against assuming that the United States will continue to have the technological edge in coming years. The future of war will probably be one in which enemies of the United States will have commercially purchased better capabilities than the Pentagon will have procured for its soldiers. Further, young entrepreneurs hoping to help out their country’s military should note the example of Abe Karem — driven to bankruptcy because the Pentagon’s bureaucracy wasn’t able to envision the transformative capability of his invention.

At the end of the day, Pentagon acquisition is run by requirements, meaning someone — generally a combatant commander — has said that "something that can do X" is required. However, it is often very difficult to envision a transformative requirement, whether it be an armed unmanned aircraft, or the latest advance in software. It is relatively certain that there was no military requirement written for email delivery to smartphones until well after that technology had matured. Therefore, something new and innovative will have no existing requirement against which it can be procured. Innovators are often described as "having a capability in search of a requirement."  This is a painful place to be if — like Abe Karam — one needs Pentagon funding dollars to keep a business model viable.

The unmanned aviation revolution is often used to bolster an argument for a coming age of U.S. technical domination. But Whittle’s Predator presents a counter-argument. In an era of technological cycles driven by Moore’s Law, it is unlikely that a highly bureaucratic Pentagon will be able to keep pace while the non-state actors, which many expect to dominate future conflicts, will thrive. In key sectors such as cyber-conflict, with big data analysis and nanotechnologies, the cutting edge capabilities will be in the private sector and often available off-the-shelf. It is far from clear if the Pentagon — and more importantly, the Congressional committees that set its policies — is prepared to deal with this new reality.

Douglas A. Ollivant is Managing Partner at Mantid International and an Arizona State University Senior Fellow in the Future of War Project at the New America Foundation.

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