Wednesday, July 10, 2013

the secret history of Double-0's license to kill anyone, anywhere, anytime....,

technologyreview |  Editor’s Note: This story relies upon anonymous sources who could not have spoken on the record without prosecution or other serious repercussions. The author revealed their identities to MIT Technology Review.

The unmanned aerial vehicle—the “drone,” the very emblem of American high-tech weaponry—started out as a toy, the fusion of a model airplane and a lawn-mower engine. While its original purpose was to bust up Soviet tanks in the first volleys of World War III, it has evolved into the favored technology for targeted assassinations in the global war on terror. Its use has sparked a great debate—at first within the most secret parts of the government, but in recent months among the general public—over the tactics, strategy, and morality not only of drone warfare but of modern warfare in general.

But before this debate can go much further—before Congress or other branches of government can lay down meaningful standards or ask pertinent questions—distinctions must be drawn, myths punctured, real issues teased out from misinformed or misleading distractions.

A little history is helpful. The drone as we know it today was the brainchild of John Stuart Foster Jr., a nuclear physicist, former head of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (then called the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory), and—in 1971, when the idea occurred to him—the director of defense research and engineering, the top scientific post in the Pentagon. Foster was a longtime model-airplane enthusiast, and one day he realized that his hobby could make for a new kind of weapon. His idea: take an unmanned, remote-controlled airplane, strap a camera to its belly, and fly it over enemy targets to snap pictures or shoot film; if possible, load it with a bomb and destroy the targets, too.

Two years later, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) built two prototypes based on Foster’s concept, dubbed Praeire and Calere. Weighing 75 pounds and powered by a modified lawn-mower engine, each vehicle could stay aloft for two hours while hoisting a 28-pound payload.

Pentagon agencies design lots of prototypes; most of them never get off the drawing board. Foster’s idea became a real weapon because it converged with a new defense doctrine. In the early-to-mid 1970s, the Soviet Union was beefing up its conventional military forces along the border between East and West Germany. A decade earlier, U.S. policy was to deter an invasion of Western Europe by threatening to retaliate with nuclear weapons. But now, the Soviets had amassed their own sizable nuclear arsenal. If we nuked them, they could nuke us back. So DARPA commissioned a study to identify new technologies that might give the president “a variety of response options” in the event of a Soviet invasion, including “alternatives to massive nuclear destruction.”

The study was led by Albert Wohlstetter, a former strategist at the RAND Corporation, who in the 1950s and ’60s wrote highly influential briefings and articles on the nuclear balance of power. He pored over various projects that DARPA had on its books and figured that Foster’s unmanned airplanes might fit the bill. In the previous few years, the U.S. military had developed a number of “precision-guided munitions”—products of the microprocessor revolution—that could land within a few meters of a target. Wohlstetter proposed putting the munitions on Foster’s pilotless planes and using them to hit targets deep behind enemy lines—Soviet tank echelons, air bases, ports. In the past, these sorts of targets could have been destroyed only by nuclear weapons, but a small bomb that hits within a few feet of its target can do as much damage as a very large bomb (even a low-yield nuclear bomb) that misses its target by a few thousand feet.

By the end of the 1970s, DARPA and the U.S. Army had begun testing a new weapon called Assault Breaker, which was directly inspired by Wohlstetter’s study. Soon, a slew of super-accurate weapons—guided by laser beams, radar emissions, millimeter waves, or, later (and more accurately), the signals of global positioning satellites—poured into the U.S. arsenal. The Army’s Assault Breaker was propelled by an artillery rocket; the first Air Force and Navy versions, called Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), were carried under the wings, and launched from the cockpits, of manned fighter jets.

Something close to Foster’s vision finally materialized in the mid-1990s, during NATO’s air war over the Balkans, with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) called the Predator. It could loiter for 24 hours at an altitude of 25,000 feet, carrying a 450-pound payload. In its first incarnation, it was packed only with video and communications gear. The digital images taken by the camera were beamed to a satellite and then transmitted to a ground station thousands of miles away, where operators controlled the drone’s flight path with a joystick while watching its real-time video stream on a monitor.

In February 2001, the Pentagon and CIA conducted the first test of a modified Predator, which carried not only a camera but also a laser-guided Hellfire missile. The Air Force mission statement for this armed UAV noted that it would be ideal for hitting “fleeting and perishable” targets. In an earlier era, this phrase would have meant destroying tanks on a battlefield. In the opening phase of America’s new war on terror, it meant hunting and killing jihadists, especially Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants in al-Qaeda.

And so a weapon designed at the height of the Cold War to impede a Soviet armor assault on the plains of Europe evolved into a device for killing bands of stateless terrorists—or even an individual terrorist—in the craggy mountains of South Asia. In this sense, drones have hovered over U.S. military policy for more than three decades, the weapons and the policy shifting in tandem over time.


Ed Dunn said...

Unmanned drones were available since the Korean war. In fact, the SR-71 in 1962 had a drone. When me and my son went to an air museum, we found it sitting around by itself in the back of a building while being nosey and took pictures with it.