Q. What is the historical genealogy of armed drones?
Identifying the first appearance of drones in warfare depends on the definition of drone being used, which the previous discussion suggests can present a vexing question. If one considers a drone simply to be a remotely piloted vehicle, then one could say that the first balloons used in battle were drones. Indeed, using this definition, which would require some conceptual stretching, the first occurrence of drones occurred in 1849, when Austria attacked Venice with nearly 200 explosive-laden unmanned balloons. Once the balloons were over Venice, the explosives were detonated "by means of a long isolated copper wire with a large galvanic battery."5 While the Austrian attack helped lay the groundwork for the use of drones in war, the operation was far from a glowing success—some of the balloons were blown back over Austrian lines. Moreover, these vehicles were remotely piloted only insofar as they depended on the direction of the wind.
World War I saw the testing and development of another set of remotely piloted vehicles, though none actually operated before the war ended. One such vehicle developed by Orville Wright and Charles Kettering during WWI, but not used in battle, was the Kettering Bug; it was a 12-foot-long wooden biplane weighing only 530 lb. (including a 180-lb. bomb). To get the Kettering Bug to fly the right distance, operators had to account for wind speed and direction, and then calculate the correct number of engine revolutions required; then, the vehicle would act as an unmanned torpedo that would strike a target. The Dayton-Wright Airplane Company built around 50 of the unmanned vehicles, though this system acted more as the Harop discussed above, rather than what we would think of as the two-way Predator or Reaper.
Between WWI and WWII, the United Kingdom and the United States both developed a series of radio-controlled drones which they used primarily as aerial targets on which their pilots could practice. In the 1930s, the Royal Air Force began developing the de Havilland Tiger Moth, a training aircraft used for target practice. In 1935, a variant of the Tiger Moth came online called the Queen Bee, thought to be the namesake for the term "drone" often used to describe unmanned systems because the rear cockpit had a radio-control system. The Queen Bee had a radio-control system in the rear cockpit that allowed the aircraft to be flown unmanned and under radio control, which was of course desirable given its role as a target drone for anti-aircraft gunnery practice. While the company made 400 of these aircraft, almost all were destroyed, having served the function for which it was intended.
Around the same time, Reginald Denny, an actor and former member of the British Royal Flying Corps, formed a model plane shop that eventually became the Radioplane Company—which was later acquired by Northrop Grumman. The Radioplane Company developed inexpensive radio- controlled aircraft that could be used for training antiaircraft gunners, similar to the purpose of the Queen Bee. The company's most popular aircraft was the OQ-3 target drone, with over 9,000 manufactured for the US Army during WWII. It is this aircraft that Norma Jeane, who later became known as Marilyn Monroe, helped assemble during the war. She was spotted by an Army photographer in June 1945, photographed, and, as a veteran of drone-building in World War II, became a model soon after the war's end.
During WWII, both Germany and the United States began developing more sophisticated unmanned platforms. At the beginning of WWII, Adolf Hitler commissioned a project to develop an unmanned vehicle used in combat, which resulted in the V-1 rocket, which was more like an early cruise missile than drone, although it was later used as a target drone by the French after the V-1 technology fell into their hands toward the end of the war. The V-1 had a range of approximately 160 miles, permitting the Germans to use launch sites in France to hit targets across the Channel. The weapon killed over 900 British citizens and injured over 35,000 in Britain during WWII. To counter the V-1, the US Navy developed drones that were able to destroy the launch sites. These drones took off with a two-person crew that would bail after setting a course for the target. The vehicles were then flown by remote control and were often successful in eliminating the ramps the Germans used to launch the V-1s.
In the postwar period, the United States continued in the target drone business, developing a series of Firebee aircraft that could be launched from the air or the ground. The subsequent generations of Firebees made slight modifications on this principle until the contractor produced a reconnaissance version, called the Lightning Bug, which was used extensively in Vietnam. Toward the end of the Vietnam War the
United States transferred 33 Lightning Bugs to Israel to be used in their 1973 Yom Kippur War.
As drone analyst, Chris Cole puts it, the more contemporary drones were "the offspring not of the American initiatives of the 1960s but of the Israeli initiatives of the 1980s."6 In particular, the technology was used in the service of surveillance of troop movements, among other things, during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.7 During this time the Israelis, who remain one of the two largest producers of drones, began building several surveillance drones—including several that were sold to the United States. The Pioneer, for example, was used in the 1991 Gulf War. Israeli Abraham Karem also developed the Gnat, which he later sold to General Atomics. The company used the design as the archetype for its Predator. The United States deployed the Gnat 750 for surveillance in the early 1990s in Yugoslavia, followed by the unarmed Predator during the conflict in Bosnia and Kosovo. The Predator improved upon the Gnat 750 with more accurate targeting technology using advanced sensors.
Like previous drones, the Predator remained unarmed. The US Air Force discussed the possibility of arming the aircraft and investigated whether or not an armed Predator would be compliant with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The INF treaty bans warheads from a "self-propelled vehicle that sustains flight through the use of aerodynamic lift over most of its flight," specifically "a ground-launched cruise missile that is a weapon-delivery vehicle."8 In their legal deliberations, the Air Force, in consultation with the State Department, determined that an armed drone was outside this ban and that an armed drone would not violate the treaty.9 Nonetheless, while General Atomics had equipped a Predator with a Hellfire missile and successfully fired it in a February 2001 practice flight, the decision to field armed Predators had languished until the 9/11 attacks. "It was the War on Terror that finally enabled the military to weaponize drones, giving them the capability to take out designated targets."10 Armed drones became a way to expand the range of options but without risks to American personnel.
The Predator deployed to Afghanistan soon after the 9/11 attacks, and by November 2001, the CIA had conducted about 40 Hellfire missile strikes in Afghanistan. In comparison to the number of airstrikes by manned platforms, which numbered 6,500 in the first three months of the war, the reliance on drone strikes was still minimal, though the scope of operations soon expanded to places other than Afghanistan. In 2002, the first drone strike outside an active combat zone occurred in Yemen. The CIA used a Predator to target Ali Qaed Senyan Al-Harthi, who was linked to the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, as well as several individuals suspected of being Al-Qaeda affiliates.
What followed was a roughly two-year pause in drone strikes for counterterrorism—that is, the strikes against suspected terrorists carried out outside active battlefields such as Afghanistan or Iraq—until the United States expanded such strikes into Pakistan in 2004. It conducted the first such strike against a suspected Al-Qaeda facilitator, Nek Muhammad, and four other suspected militants, beginning a long and increasingly sharp increase of drone strikes in Pakistan. While the United States conducted 52 strikes in Pakistan between 2001 and 2008, there were 300 in the four years following (2009-2012), a steep escalation in counterterrorist drone strikes that made the United States the leading state in the use of armed drones.11 During this time, drone strikes in conflict zones also increased, with the British increasingly complementing US attacks in Afghanistan, allegedly accounting for about one-fifth of drone strikes by 2012.12 Thus, in a somewhat dramatic fashion, the use of drones after the 9/11 terrorist attacks quickly revealed the potentially transformative nature of armed drones both in active conflict zones and in the context of counterterrorism.