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At the start of the second Gulf War in 2003, the U.S. Air Force flew only one unmanned combat air patrol per day. Today it flies more than 40. By 2012 that number will jump to 65

At the end of World War II, General Henry H. “Hap” Ar­nold made a startling prediction: “We have just won a war with a lot of heroes flying around in planes. The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all….Take everything you’ve learned about aviation in war, throw it out of the window, and let’s go to work on tomorrow’s aviation. It will be different from anything the world has ever seen.”

Arnold’s bold vision of pilotless aircraft fighting America’s wars was premature, but his prophecy is coming true. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan sparked a revolution in unmanned aviation that is changing the way wars are fought. War fighters have developed, in Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ words, “insatiable demand” for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

At the start of the second Gulf War in 2003, the U.S. Air Force flew only one unmanned combat air patrol per day in support of the conflict. Today it flies more than 40. By 2012 that number will jump to 65. To support that exponential growth, the Air Force plans to double its unmanned fleet to more than 200 aircraft and likely triple its UAS crew cadre to over 1,500, making it the largest community of aviators in the Air Force. This year, for the first time in its history, the USAF will train more crews to operate unmanned aircraft than it does to fly manned fighters or bombers.

Unbelievably, this radical change in the composition of aircraft and aircrews only meets the short-term needs of U.S. Central Command, one of 10 unified combatant commands. The other nine combatant commanders are all clamoring for delivery of their UAS armadas. Which raises the question, “Will the USAF become a pilotless force?”

Charles Kettering collaborated with Orville Wright to produce what is generally regarded as the first practical example of an unmanned aircraft, the “Kettering Bug,” although some argue it’s better described as the first cruise missile. (National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)
Charles Kettering collaborated with Orville Wright to produce what is generally regarded as the first practical example of an unmanned aircraft, the “Kettering Bug,” although some argue it’s better described as the first cruise missile. (National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)

More unmanned aircraft necessarily means fewer airborne cockpits. The Defense Department’s 2010 budget directed the Air Force to send 250 fighters to the boneyard to help fund UAS expansion. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review outlined a Defense Department commitment to purchase 372 additional MQ-9 Reapers by 2018, which means large cuts in the manned force are likely to continue. Additionally, Gates canceled a manned version of the next-generation bomber pending the results of a study to see whether it should be unmanned.

The Air Force recently revealed the existence of the RQ-170 Sentinel, a highly classified UAS incorporating a stealthy flying-wing design that makes it look like a mini B-2 bomber. The emergence of the Sentinel from its cloak of secrecy offers an intriguing glimpse at advanced technology already in operation, no doubt a harbinger of an increasingly UAS-centric force.

“This is an inflection point,” acknowledged Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz. “The trend lines are unmistakable that the United States Air Force will be an increasingly unmanned aviation service. Industry has already refueled an unmanned aircraft and demonstrated multi-aircraft control—all feats that only a few contemplated 10 years ago. It’s not hard to imagine a multitude of other missions for our unmanned aircraft, including air transport, air refueling, suppressing enemy air defenses, forward air control, combat search and rescue and more. It also is not difficult to imagine new operational concepts, such as groups of unmanned aircraft flying ‘swarm’ tactics.”

As Schwartz noted, UAS technology has advanced well beyond most observers’ expectations over the last decade. Indeed, the meteoric rise and seemingly un­limited potential of this groundbreaking technology gives the misleading impression that it suddenly blossomed out of no­where. In reality unmanned technology dates back to manned aviation’s infancy.

Unmanned aircraft development within the Air Force can best be described as driven by short bursts of technological progress spurred by wartime needs and interservice rivalry, followed by periods of neglect, disinterest and occasional hostility. Understandably the USAF, an organization that owes its independence as a service to manned aviation, is struggling with how best to institutionalize a technology that blurs the definition of a “pilot.” Institutional and cultural resistance to unmanned aviation is not surprising given the entrenched traditions of pilots and the uncertainty of transitioning away from proven technology.

Frankly, not all Air Force leaders have been as receptive to a UAS future as the forward-thinking General Arnold. It’s worth noting that a nonpilot has never run the Air Force since its inception more than 60 years ago. Gates picked Schwartz, the first chief to come from a background other than fighters or bombers (he flew C-130 transports), to encourage dramatic change. In April 2008, Gates expressed his frustration with the Air Force while speaking at Air University at Maxwell AFB in Alabama: “My concern is that our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield. I’ve been wrestling for months to get more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets into the theater. Because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it’s been like pulling teeth.”

Two months later, Gates took the unprecedented step of firing both General T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, and Michael Wynne, the secretary of the Air Force. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was an accidental shipment of nuclear fuzes to Taiwan, but the main reason behind their dismissal was perceived slowness in getting more UAS to Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention back-channel congressional lobbying for the F-22 Raptor after Gates canceled the program.

Certainly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan proved a tipping point for the UAS revolution. But that wouldn’t have been possible without the confluence of five critical technological advancements: automatic stabilization, remote control, autonomous navigation, weaponization and satellite connectivity. The MQ-1B Predator would ultimately emerge as the beneficiary of this convergence, leading it to become the breakout aircraft of the UAS revolution. To borrow a term from the Internet, the Predator went “viral” and has racked up more than 500,000 combat hours.

American inventor Elmer Sperry, known as the father of modern navigation technology, was among the first to tackle the problem of automatic stabilization. In 1908 he patented a gyroscope that replaced a ship’s magnetic compass. After the Navy installed his invention on the battleship Delaware in 1911, Sperry spotted another opportunity in the nascent aviation industry. He developed a gyrostabilizer that would enable aircraft to fly straight and level without pilot intervention. His son Lawrence dramatically demonstrated his father’s invention in 1914, flying a gyrostabilized Curtiss C-2 flying boat above the Seine River while holding his hands raised above his head. On his second pass, Lawrence repeated the trick—only this time his mechanic was standing on the plane’s lower wing. The demo helped father and son win the Collier Trophy that year for the most noteworthy achievement in aviation.

In 1915 the Navy hired Sperry to build a “flying bomb.” The idea was to pack a Curtiss N-9 floatplane with dynamite and have it fly in a straight line until a mechanical device that counted propeller revolutions cut fuel to the engine. Sperry conducted a series of largely unsuccessful test flights in 1917. Only one unmanned N-9 managed to escape from its catapult launch, and it was last seen cruising over the naval militia station at Bay Shore, N.Y., at 4,000 feet heading east.

Not to be outdone by the Navy, the Army sponsored a competing design, nicknamed the “Kettering Bug” after its designer, Charles Kettering, a prominent inventor from Dayton, Ohio. Kettering collaborated with Orville Wright to produce what is generally regarded as the first practical example of an unmanned aircraft, although some argue it’s better described as the first cruise missile, since it couldn’t be controlled in flight. With a wingspan of 6 feet and a small two-stroke engine built by the Ford Motor Company, the Bug could carry a 250-pound warhead. The aircraft achieved success on seven of 24 test flights starting in September 1918, although it had an unfortunate tendency to circle the airfield after launch, and once even buzzed a crowd of dignitaries and top Army brass observers. Nevertheless, the Army contracted to build 75 Bugs and dispatched then-Major Arnold to Europe to convince General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, to employ them against Germany. The war ended before the Bug made its combat debut.

In the early 1920s the Army Air Service sponsored Sperry to build the Messenger Aerial Torpedo (MAT), a drone designed to deliver messages between headquarters in place of a runner. The Army offered Sperry a series of $5,000 bonuses for “hitting targets,” defined as passing within 2 degrees of predefined points up to 90 miles away. The MAT’s gyroscope was unable to compensate for unpredictable winds, however, and the drone performed poorly. Hoping to earn the bonuses, Sperry added a remote-control feature to his drone and used a chase plane to broadcast course corrections. This enabled the MATs to hit every accuracy mark, but the Army’s chief of the Engineering Division cried foul, saying the use of radio controls disqualified Sperry. The Army’s higher headquarters ultimately relented, paying Sperry $20,000.

In 1923 Sperry died in a plane crash. Thereafter the Army continued to tinker with MATs, but interest and funding faded. The abandonment of the program in 1926 effectively halted military research into radio-controlled aviation.

Civilian hobbyists such as actor Reginald Denny took up where the military had left off. Denny, a World War I Royal Flying Corps observer/gunner and later a stunt pilot, became interested in radio control in the early 1930s. He built his own radio-controlled model airplane and opened up a shop on Hollywood Boulevard. On the eve of World War II, his Radioplane company won a contract from the Army to produce 15,000 subscale target drones.

"Edna III,” a U.S. Navy TDR-1 attack drone, is readied for launch from an air base in the Solomon Islands. In late 1944, aircraft like these guided by a specially equipped TBM Avenger carried out a number of attacks against dug-in Japanese positions. (National Archives)
“Edna III,” a U.S. Navy TDR-1 attack drone, is readied for launch from an air base in the Solomon Islands. In late 1944, aircraft like these guided by a specially equipped TBM Avenger carried out a number of attacks against dug-in Japanese positions. (National Archives)

WWII sparked new interest in unmanned aircraft. In 1941 the U.S. Navy initiated a secret program to develop “assault drones” that could be used either as guided missiles or to drop bombs. At one point it envisioned an ambitious plan for as many as 18 attack drone squadrons flying 1,000 aircraft. Technical delays led the Navy to scale back its plans, and it ended up deploying only two Special Task Air Group squadrons in 1944. These squadrons flew TDR-1s, twin-engine drones that were controlled from TBM-1 Avengers. A pilot would fly the TDR-1 in loose formation to the target using radio controls mounted in the cockpit of the Avenger, then an operator in the rear used a television screen and radar scope to provide the drone with terminal guidance.

The drone’s first combat mission came on September 27, 1944, when the Navy flew TDR-1s loaded with 2,000-pound bombs into an anti-aircraft battery on a beached Japanese merchant ship near Kahili airfield on Bougainville Island in the Solomons. Japanese soldiers mistakenly believed Americans were flying manned aircraft into their gun emplacement. Propagandist Tokyo Rose even referred to the attackers as “American kamikazes” in her radio broadcasts. Less than a month later the Navy used TDR-1s in a conventional bombing role against targets on Ballale Island, south of Bougainville. The Navy-assessed TDR-1s earned a 46 percent hit rate in their first 30 days of operations.

Less successful was the Army’s Operation Aphrodite. The intent was to strip B-17s of armament and nonessential gear, pack them with ex­plosives and crash them into German V-weapon facilities and sub pens. But the only drone that actually hit its target failed to explode, giving the Germans a crumpled but intact B-17 and a set of radio controls.

When the war ended, a newly independent U.S. Air Force again lost interest in unmanned aircraft until the Cold War turned hot. In May 1960, a Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile downed CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 reconnaissance plane over Sverdlovsk. Then in 1962 an SA-2 shot down another U-2 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The need to conduct reconnaissance flights over areas deemed too dangerous or politically untenable for manned aircraft spawned two programs: the D-21 Tagboard and the Ryan Model 147 Lightning Bug. Both relied on an internal navigation unit to autonomously complete a predefined flight route. Neither drone returned to base, instead ejecting its camera payload. The D-21 dropped a pod containing film into the ocean for pickup, while the Lightning Bug relied on a parachute, recovered in midair by a helicopter.

In this photo taken from a KC-135 refueling tanker, a B-52 carries a D-21 reconnaisance drone and its rocket booster on an external pylon. (U.S. Air Force)

The D-21 Tagboard, a product of Lockheed’s top-secret Skunk Works facility, flew at speeds in excess of Mach 4 and had a range of 3,450 miles. It was designed to be carried on the back of a modified A-12 spy plane redesignated the M-12 but usually referred to as the M-21, with the “M” and “D” designations signifying mother and daughter. In 1966, on its fourth test flight, the D-21 prototype collided with its mother ship after separation, resulting in the loss of the M-21 and one of its crewmen. As a result, Lockheed engineers substituted a B-52H for the M-21 as the mother ship. The B-52H carried the D-21 on a wing pylon rather than on its back.

The CIA conducted its first Tagboard mission over China on November 9, 1969. After the D-21 flew over its target, the Chinese nuclear test facility at Lop Nor, its internal navigation unit failed and it crashed in Mongolia. On its second mission, the drone returned to the recovery site but failed to drop its pod, so the info was lost. On its third attempt, the de­stroyer sent to retrieve the camera ran over it, sinking the pod. The D-21 never returned from its fourth and final mission; recent information suggests it crashed in a forest and was recovered by the Chinese.

Relying on less ambitious technology than the D-21, the Lightning Bug, a spinoff of the Firebee target drone, experienced fewer technological challenges. Two of five Lightning Bug missions over China in 1964 ended with the drones being successfully recovered. In 1965 the Air Force started flying Lightning Bugs over North Vietnam. During the next 10 years, 1,016 Lightning Bugs flew 3,450 recon sorties.

Of the 544 Lightning Bugs lost in combat, about one-third crashed due to mechanical problems and the rest were downed by enemy missiles, fighters or anti-aircraft artillery. Air Force planners had anticipated one aircraft would be lost for every 2.5 sorties, but the actual average was 7.3 sorties per aircraft lost. A drone dubbed Tom Cat set the record with 68 sorties before being lost in September 1974. De­spite being unarmed, several Lightning Bugs managed to earn MiG “kills,” since North Vietnamese fighters sometimes crashed or were hit by errant SAMs while trying to intercept the drones. One drone actually earned ace status, as it contributed to the loss of five enemy fighters.

The AQM-34L Firebee drone "Tom Cat" flew 68 missions over North Vietnam before being shot down by anti-aircraft fire over Hanoi. (USAF)
The AQM-34L Firebee drone “Tom Cat” flew 68 missions over North Vietnam before being shot down by anti-aircraft fire over Hanoi. (U.S. Air Fore)

After Vietnam, Air Force officials ended the program, choosing instead to fund competing manned aircraft projects and other technologies. Although the Lightning Bug had yielded valuable intelligence, its technology remained immature. Complex launch, recovery and payload processing procedures, as well as the program’s relatively high costs, contributed to its cancellation. In 1975 Undersecretary of the Air Force James Plummer remarked: “We are going to be cautious about initiating a vehicle development program where we don’t have a good idea of the technological status and requirements of a support system. We simply cannot justify spending money to prove a concept which may have marginal utility.” Moreover, negative attitudes about unmanned technology and its incompatibility with a warrior ethos un­doubtedly colored budgeting decisions. As one Air Force official commented, “How can you be a tiger sitting behind a console?”

The U.S. military largely ignored unmanned aircraft technology until a watershed event in 1982: Israel achieved a stunning victory when it launched a volley of unmanned decoys over Syrian air defenses in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The Syrians fell for the feint, activating their air defense network and firing retaliatory SAMs—which allowed the Israelis to pinpoint the location of each launch site, leading to the destruction of Syrian air defenses.

This RQ-2 Pioneer is checked out on the fantail of the battleship USS Wisconsin during Operation Desert Shield in November of 1991, the small drone was used to observe the effectiveness of the battleship’s huge 16 inch guns. (U.S. Navy)

Recognizing the game-changing potential of unmanned aircraft, the U.S. Navy purchased an Israeli Mastiff system, which developed into the re-engined RQ-2 Pioneer. Mostly it used the Pioneer to spot artillery barrages from its battleships. In one famous incident during the first Gulf War, a contingent of Iraqi soldiers on Failaka Island surrendered to a Pioneer orbiting overhead after the battleship Missouri battered their trench line with fire.

Like the Pioneer, the Predator has Israeli roots. It got off to an inauspicious start as an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) in 1994. The Predator was a derivative of a highly classified CIA drone code-named “Amber,” originally developed by Abraham Karem, a former chief designer for the Israeli Air Force. General Atomics purchased Karem’s bankrupt company and would later improve his design to develop an ACTD prototype.

“At birth, the Predator showed no signs that it would, in time, figure prominently in thousands of USAF missions over Iraq, Afghanistan and other hotspots,” observed Walter Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “No one expected it was to wind up watching terrorists; guiding fighters, bombers and gunships to targets; and sometimes attacking enemies itself in otherwise inaccessible areas.” Yet this lowly UAS, powered by a four-stroke snowmobile engine, would morph into arguably the most critical asset in the Air Force’s arsenal.

The Predator originally was not even an Air Force program. The Army staffed and led the ACTD. Worried about the implications of the Army regaining a foothold in fixed-wing aviation, General Ron Fogelman fought to get the program transferred to the Air Force in 1996, after the Predator demonstrated its utility supporting operations in the former Yugoslavia. On its first deployment to the Balkans, the Predator located worthwhile targets but could not destroy them because it didn’t carry ordnance. Moreover, Predator crews had to rely on cumbersome and inefficient radio conversations to direct fighters to targets while looking through the limited view of its original camera.

General John Jumper, the commander of Allied Air Forces Central Europe who later became Air Force chief of staff, heard about the crews’ frustration. He subsequently learned of an incident where a CIA Predator reportedly found Osama bin Laden, but he escaped because the Predator had no way to attack him. Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles called into action arrived too late. Jumper ordered the Big Safari, a specialized office that cuts through the normal acquisition bureaucracy to quickly develop special-purpose aircraft, to find a way to make the Predator more combat effective. Acting on their recommendations, Jumper ordered the Predator’s original camera replaced with a Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MTS) that included an improved sensor suite and a laser target designator. The Predator was also fitted with two laser-guided 105-pound Hellfire missiles. In 2002 the Air Force changed the Predator’s designation from RQ-1 to MQ-1B to reflect its graduation from a reconnaissance to a multirole aircraft.

An MQ-1B Predator takes off in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2008. Fitted with two laser-guided Hellfire missiles, the drone graduated from a reconnaissance to a multirole aircraft. (USAF photo/TSgt. Sabrina Johnson)
An MQ-1B Predator takes off in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2008. Fitted with two laser-guided Hellfire missiles, the drone graduated from a reconnaissance to a multirole aircraft. (USAF photo/TSgt. Sabrina Johnson)

At the same time, the Air Force perfected a concept of employment known as Remote Split Operations (RSOs), to fully leverage the power of satellite technology (see sidebar). The Predator always relied on Global Positioning System (GPS) signals to simplify navigation, but initially it mostly used C-band line-of-sight radio waves to control the aircraft during missions. The curvature of the earth limited its maximum range to approximately 70 miles. Bouncing the control signal off a satellite untethered the aircraft from its ground control station, allowing crews based in the United States to fly Predators on the other side of the globe. This fundamentally rewrote the rules of battle—power projection with minimal vulnerability became possible.

When the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan started to spiral out of control, all the technological preconditions that would enable the Predator to go viral were in place. War fighters highly valued its ability to provide 30 hours of unblinking surveillance, and the Predator rapidly became the top requested combat asset in the Air Force inventory. At only $4 million apiece, the Predator provided incredible value, allowing units to see over the next hill, around the corner of a building or ahead of its convoys scanning for improvised explosive devices. Anyone with a computer and access could see its real-time video. Feeds are piped via the military’s classified Internet network or broadcast directly to hardened ROVER laptops.

In addition to working closely with ground units, the Predator excelled at finding and engaging terrorist leaders. For example, in November 2002 a Predator located and targeted Abu Ali al-Harthi, al-Qaeda’s top operative in Yemen and the mastermind behind the suicide speedboat attack on the destroyer Cole that claimed the lives of 17 Americans. Al-Harthi and five other terrorists met their end when a Predator fired a Hellfire missile into their car in Yemen.

Paradoxically, the “unmanned” revolution owes much to the efforts of men and women at the controls of these platforms. A soldier on the ground doesn’t care whether a 500-pound GBU-12 is delivered from an F-16 or an MQ-9 Reaper—the result is the same.

Skeptics of unmanned technology point out that data links can be jammed or exploited. They also raise questions about the ethical dilemma of allowing unmanned craft to operate autonomously and make life or death decisions according to a preprogrammed algorithm. Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the UAS revolution, there’s no doubt that earthbound aviators will continue to play an important role in the U.S. Air Force.

U.S. Air Force pilot Lawrence Spinetta flew more than 65 F-15 combat sorties over Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, and recently commanded an MQ-1 Predator squadron. For further reading, he suggests: Air Force UAVs: The Secret History, by Thomas Ehrhard; and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Robotic Air Warfare 1917-2007, by Steven Zaloga.

The Rise of Unmanned Aircraft appeared in the January 2011 issue of Aviation History Magazine. For more on the future of unmanned systems, read The Future is Now also from the January issue.  Subscribe today!