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Book Review: 'Predator' by Richard Whittle

Compared with, say, a B-2 Bomber, drones are simple things. An empty B-2 weighs 158,000 pounds. The largest version of the Predator—the unmanned aerial vehicle now playing a critical role in every theater where the American military is engaged—weighs just under 5,000. Yet these small aircraft are revolutionizing warfare. Given the simplicity of drones, why did it take so long to put them into operation?

An answer emerges in Richard Whittle’s fascinating “Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution.” Mr. Whittle, a military correspondent for the Dallas Morning News and the author of a previous book about the controversial tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey, has combed every available document and talked to almost every American participant in drone research and development. The result is a soup-to-nuts—or ground-to-air—history of the world’s most potent unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV.

As Mr. Whittle makes plain, there is nothing especially new about UAVs. Inventors have been fiddling with pilotless aircraft since World War I. By the 1970s, some 120 separate versions were listed by Jane’s, the authoritative guide to aircraft. Few of them, though, had made their way into military use. The obstacles were both technological and organizational.

First, there was the disagreeable fact that drones tended to crash, especially on takeoff and landing. Second, UAVs lacked a constituency within the Pentagon. As Mr. Whittle explains, Air Force pilots did not exactly appreciate pilotless planes. The Army, to the extent that it liked any aircraft, was keen on helicopters. The Navy, for its part, did not relish the prospect of unmanned craft loaded with munitions or fuel landing on carrier decks.

Such resistance was overcome by the unflagging efforts of three far-sighted men. Abraham Karem, an Israeli engineering prodigy, came to the United States after the 1973 Yom Kippur War to pursue his vision of a UAV armed with antitank missiles, an aircraft that could loiter in the skies and then strike to help defeat an invading army. Mr. Karem’s brilliance, alas, did not extend to the mysteries of Pentagon nomenclature or procurement policies. His absurdly misnamed craft, the Albatross, was a model of innovation and capability, but the Defense Department was not interested. It took two brothers, Neal and Linden Blue, swashbuckling aviation pioneers themselves, to rescue Mr. Karem’s project from bankruptcy. The private firm they had recently acquired, General Atomics, hired Mr. Karem and in 1990 bought his design—lock, stock and propeller—just as the Soviet empire collapsed and the military market for drones was zilch.

Purchasing a straw hat in winter, so to speak, turned out to be a shrewd move. No sooner did the Cold War end than the disintegration of Yugoslavia began. As the U.S.-led NATO alliance stepped into armed conflict, there was an urgent need for timely intelligence about the location of Serbian forces. All existing means of reconnaissance had drawbacks. CIA Director James Woolsey began thinking about drones as a replacement. He turned to Linden Blue, whom he knew from a former collaboration at the Hudson Institute. Mr. Blue’s response: “We’ll give you whatever you need. We’ll make it happen.”

In short order, another creation of Mr. Karem’s, the Gnat 750, was flying over Bosnia, equipped with sensors that could distinguish decoys from real artillery, spot the movement of weapons, and identify civilians near military targets. But the Gnat lacked the capacity to go long distances or loiter for extended periods. The Pentagon wanted it to be capable of hauling a total of 500 pounds of fuel, communications gear and sensors, not a mere 130.

Back on the drawing boards at General Atomics, Mr. Karem added dramatically to almost every dimension of the craft, which now needed a new name. The company called it Predator, over the objections of Pentagon officials who thought it sounded like an armed weapon rather than the reconnaissance tool it was conceived to be. Crisp video feed was soon being piped to bases all over the world, giving far-away commanders real-time access to the movement of even tiny objects on the battlefield. An obvious follow-on idea was using the Predator to paint targets with laser beams, enabling manned aircraft to drop precision-guided munitions.

By the late 1990s, when the mission of disrupting al Qaeda materialized, so did two additional capabilities. First, advances in communications allowed the Predator to be controlled from bases in the U.S. Second, the Hellfire antitank missile was mounted on the craft’s underbelly. The Predator was now aptly named. Indeed, a new era in warfare had dawned: the age of what Mr. Whittle calls the “intercontinental sniper rifle.” Operators sitting in a trailer outside CIA headquarters in Virginia could squeeze a joystick and zap a target across the world.

Such a “sniper rifle” would have been useful in the years before 9/11, when the CIA was searching for ways to strike Osama bin Laden. But the pieces were not quite in place, even though they could have been. The most alarming take-away from Mr. Whittle’s history is the persistent opposition of officials in the Pentagon who, for bureaucratic reasons, hindered progress at every step of the way.

A case in point: Two months after 9/11, the Predator was employed to incinerate one of al Qaeda’s senior operatives, Mohammed Atef. The same blast also incinerated—metaphorically—a study released two weeks earlier by the Pentagon’s office of operational testing and evaluation. The study had declared Predator “not operationally effective or suitable” for combat. If one seeks to understand why the drone revolution was late in coming—too late to help avert 9/11—the hidebound mentality behind that Pentagon document is one place to start.

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