History of U.S. Drones

For companion essays, see Ian Shaw, (2013) “Predator Empire: The Geopolitics of U.S. Drone Warfare“, Geopolitics. Ian Shaw and Majed Akhter (2014) The Dronification of State Violence, Critical Asian Studies.
For an examination of how U.S. targeted killings work, see this post. For more on history, see here.

The Rise of the Predator Empire: Tracing the History of U.S. Drones

Lightning Bug

A Lightning Bug over Vietnam – one of the first drones used for surveillance by the U.S. Air Force.

The MQ-1 Predator is perhaps the most well-known of all military drones used today. It has a wingspan of 55 feet, a length of 27 feet, and can reach speeds of up to 135mph. According to the U.S. Air Force, “The Predator system was designed in response to a Department of Defense requirement to provide persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information combined with a kill capability to the warfighter”. Its deathly name conjures images of a science-fiction dystopia, a Terminator Planet where robots hover in the sky and exterminate humans on the ground. Of course, this is no longer science-fiction.

Drone operators sat in a Nevada desert, huddled in air-conditioned cubicles, now control a fleet of robots that can loiter above the landscape with advanced sensing capabilities. According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, over  3,300 people have been killed by Predators in Pakistan, where the drones are controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Dating back to 2004, the controversial program targets al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants, and generates fierce debate for its seeming violation of international humanitarian law and national sovereignty.

But we didn’t wake up in this brave new Droneworld  overnight. Instead, there were a series of historical conditions, personalities, and processes that gave rise to this lethal atmosphere. The purpose of this essay is to review some of these key lines of descent.

IntrepidDrones have a long history. One of the first recorded usages of drones was by Austrians on August 22, 1849. They launched some 200 pilotless balloons mounted with bombs against the city of Venice. And less than two decades later, balloons were flown in the U.S. Civil War in 1862, with both Confederate and Union forces using them for reconnaissance and bombing sorties. Fast forward over twenty years to 1898, during the Spanish-American War, and we find the U.S. military fitting a camera to a kite, producing the first ever aerial reconnaissance photos.

During the “official” U.S. involvement in North and South Vietnam between 1965 and 1973, the region proved to be a “laboratory” for the testing and trialing of advanced American technology. The “electronic battlefield” was (at the time) a radical doctrine that aimed to map the entire battlespace with sensors and automated, machinic responses. The “McNamara Line” as it was known by its detractors, aimed to cover vast swathes of territory below the DMZ and into Laos with acoustic and seismic sensors that could detect human and truck movements. This data was then broadcast to overhead aircraft, which transmitted the radio signal on to a “nerve center” in Thailand, which in turn computed the data, generated a target, and then guided bombers to a designated strike area.

As part of this automating of the battlespace, the Air Force began populating the region with remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs). The evolution of the U.S. drone can be understood as the passage of three overlapping phases: (1) the drone as a “target” (1910s-1950s), (2) the drone as a “sensor” (1960s-1990s) (3) the drone as a “weapon” (2000s-today).

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The origins of the modern drone can be traced to the “target drones” used in the early twentieth century. These “dumb” drones were used to test and train combat pilots, missilemen, and anti-aircraft gunners.

KetteringThis technology first emerged in the First World War. The “grandfather” drone was the rail-launched Kettering Aerial Torpedo “Bug,” developed in 1917 by the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company. The Bug was essentially an unmanned aerial torpedo – pilotless and guided by preset controls. As the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force writes, “After a predetermined length of time, a control closed an electrical circuit, which shut off the engine. Then, the wings were released, causing the Bug to plunge to earth – where its 180 pounds of explosive detonated on impact.” At the same time, in 1917, Elmer Sperry—pioneer of the gyroscope—began construction of the radio-controlled “Aerial Torpedo” or “Flying Bomb.” The Aerial Torpedo was able to fly 50 miles carrying a 300 pound bomb.

And so, both the Bug and the Aerial Torpedo became early forerunners to contemporary cruise missiles. But both were largely inaccurate and the drone race was put on hold.

The late 1930s saw a “rush of military interest in remotely controlled vehicles” (Dickson, p.181), out of which emerged the second generation “Bug,” as well as the “Bat” – a radio-controlled glide bomb used towards the end of the Second World War. In the mid-1940s the lethal “GB-1” Glide Bomb was developed to bypass German air defences. It was a workable glider fitted to a standard 1,000 or 2,000 pound bomb. Made with plywood wings, rudders, and controlled by radio, the GB-1s were dropped from B-17s and then guided by bombardiers to their target below. In 1943, one hundred and eight GB-1s were dropped on Cologne causing heavy damage (p.181). Later in the same war came the GB-4, or the “Robin”, becoming the first “television-guided weapon” (p.181). Although potentially revolutionary, the crude image would only function with sufficient detail in all but the best atmospheric conditions.

During this period, the English-based effort known as Operation Aphrodite begun. The aim was to strike German research laboratories that were concealed in bunkers. The plan was to take B-17 “Flying Fortress” and B-24 bombers, strip them down, and cram them full of high explosives. Manned crews would then pilot the plane for the first part of its orbit, but parachute out once the plane had crossed the English Channel into Europe. At this time, a manned “mothership” would take control, receiving live feed from an onboard television camera fitted in the cockpit.

B-17 Aphrodite

Aphrodite was a failure. It even claimed the life of Joseph Kennedy Kr, when his B-17 exploded over the English countryside before he and his co-pilot were able to parachute. But the military was not about to give up: the development of Aphrodite, together with the strides the Germans were making with the V1 and the more sophisticated V2 missile, accelerated the development of U.S. unmanned projects.

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According to Dickson, in late 1946 a special “Pilotless Aircraft Branch” of the U.S. Air Force was established to develop three types of drones for use as training targets. Of the three, the airborne-launched Q-2 was the most important and ambitious, becoming the “father” of a new class of drones built by the Ryan Aeronautical Company, beginning in the early 1950s.

Ryan called these new models its “Firebees,” and went on to sell 4,000 of the jet-propelled drones (Dickson, p.183). The early Q-2/Firebee could stay in flight for up to two hours, was capable of flying up to 60,000 feet, and could reach speeds of 500 knots. As Dickson goes on, “Virtually every antiaircraft system the nation has developed has had to prove its worth by downing a batch of elusive Firebees” (p.183). In the mid-1950s, Sperry rigged an F-80 fighter so that it could be flown automatically to fetch radioactive atmospheric samples. Even so, the drone remained almost exclusively a “target” for training up to, and throughout the 1960s.

By 1970 top military brass were beginning to see the promise of the drone. The technology had become such that drones could be piloted from the ground (rather than an airborne mothership). One of the game-changing “moments” came in early 1971, in which unmanned machines “humiliated” manned systems in a simulated dogfight over the Pacific Test Range. This scenario pitted an F-4 Phantom against a Ryan Firebee, which was outfitted with a remote flight control system, making it a genuine RPV, rather than target drone or missile. Controlled by pilots on the ground, the Firebee managed to score several “hits” on the F-4. As Dickson notes, in 1972 a supersonic Firebee II even penetrated the missile defenses of the Navy destroyer Wainwright and scored a simulated direct hit.

DC-130 Carrying Ryan Firebees

A DC-130 carries two Ryan Firebee drones under its wing.

In addition to simulations, the drone was proving its worth in “real” combat. For example, in 1962 drones were used for reconnaissance in Cuba; and in 1963, Ryan-147 “Lightening Bug” drones were used for spying in North Vietnam, Laos, and the People’s Republic of China. Some of these Firebees—which were launched by C-130 motherships—were downed over China in 1964 and 1965. Such was the extent of drone intelligence gathering during this time: “the US had given the lion’s share of its close-in surveillance work in Asia to the Ryan drones” (Dickson, p.188). The Air Force stated that approximately 3,000 unmanned missions were flown in Southeast Asia (p.188). Indeed, “About 85 percent of the photos taken to assess bomb damage during the period were brought home by these automated craft. Often unknown to both those who looked at them and those that published them, many of the aerial views of North Vietnam that appeared in the American press were taken by the drones” (p.188). Other Ryan Firebees were being adapted by the U.S. Navy in the area around North Vietnam.

Finally, other Vietnam-era drones were being tested as “electronic listening devices” in the aforementioned “McNamara Line” (or more precisely, the Laos segment of the Line called “Igloo White”). This included the QU-22B Beech aircraft, a prototype unmanned system that would be deployed to receive and relay signals broadcast from the sensors dispersed along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But the unmanned system never saw the light of day. As the U.S. Air Force National Museum writes, “Although the QU-22B performed well as a signal relay, all operational flights in Southeast Asia carried a pilot onboard due to equipment reliability problems. In 1972, after the loss of several aircraft, the USAF cancelled the QU-22 program.”

Other programs that emerged throughout the 1970s included “Compass Code,” “mini RPVS,” as well as an Army program called “Remotely Piloted Aerial Observation/Designation System” that “Aimed at getting the RPV to find a target, and, like a pointer-dog, keep a bead on it with its laser nose until a laser-guided bomb or missile comes in from elsewhere to home in on the target” (Dickson, p.191).

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The “electronic battlefield” of the Vietnam War is pivotal to understanding the development of contemporary drone warfare. It marked the turning point in which drones morphed from being “targets” to remote “sensor” platforms that could survey the landscape below.

It would take decades before the next phase: the drone as weapon.

In the next section, I want to explore this phase, tracing the historical rise of the Predator drone, beginning in the 1980s. In particular, I want to explore how the American drone became an object of power in tandem with a series of legal objects. While advancements in drones were driven by the requirements of cartographic intelligence, these unmanned objects were very much bound to a series of legal objects that enabled their deployment. In other words, the relationship between technology and law is extremely important in charting the rise of the Predator drone: both come together in the production of geographic knowledge and surveillance, target acquisition, and wider economies of life and death. This relationship between technology and law is embodied in two contrasting figures that did more than most to fuel the motors of the Predator Empire: An Israeli engineer called Abraham Karem and a Saudi jihadist called Osama bin Laden.

The Birth of the Predator

“Rare is the technology that can change the face of warfare. In the first half of the past century, tanks and planes transformed how the world fought its battles. The fifty years that followed were dominated by nuclear warheads and ICBMs, weapons of such horrible power that they gave birth to new doctrines to keep countries form ever using them. The advent of the armed drone upended this calculus: War was possible exactly because it seemed so free of risk. The bar for war had been lowered, the remote-controlled age had begun, and the killer drones became an object of fascination inside the CIA”.

(Mark Mazzetti, 2012, ‘The Way of the Knife‘, p. 100)

KaremAbraham Karem was born in Baghdad, the son of a Jewish merchant. His family moved to Israel in 1951, and by the 1970s, the young Karem was already building aircraft for the Israeli Air Force, during which time aviation engineers were attempting to satisfy the need for real-time intelligence. In 1980 he emigrated from Israel to Los Angeles and started to build aircraft in his garage. A year later he wheeled out a bizarre, cigar-looking aircraft called the ‘Albatross’ that would change the face of warfare forever.

At Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, Karem demonstrated that his Albatross could stay in the air for 56 hours straight. This was somewhat of a revelation. During the Vietnam War, U.S. drones were programmed to fly a pre-programmed route and take still-photographs. But they could only stay in the air for around two hours. The flight of the Albatross led to funding from DARPA, the military’s research and development department. The first outcome from this seed money was a drone called the Amber, developed by Karem’s company Leading Systems Incorporated. Although the Amber enjoyed much success, including demonstrating a flight endurance of 40 hours by 1988, it soon became apparent that the Amber was insufficient for prolonged surveillance: it was unable to carry large quantities of fuel or sophisticated sensor equipment. Leading Systems responded to this deficiency by rolling out the GNAT-750 in 1989. The GNAT improved on the Amber in a number of ways: it was equipped with GPS navigation, which allowed for autonomous missions of up to 48 hours, and also housed infrared and low-light cameras in a moveable sensor turret under its nose.

Karem’s company found itself in fiscal trouble when the military decided not to pursue large-scale development of the Amber. The U.S. Congress had become impatient with UAV development, and by 1990, the Pentagon was forced to consolidate its UAV research into a single Joint Program Office, which wasn’t budgeted for any research. Congress also banned DARPA from supporting UAV projects outside of the jurisdiction of the Pentagon’s JPO, which effectively killed off UAV development, including the embryonic Amber and GNAT programs. Financially stretched, Karem sold his company to Hughes Aircraftwhich in turn sold it to San Diego-based General Atomics in 1990General Atomics decided to continue development of the GNAT-750, and Karem was made part of the company’s subsidiary called General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.

GNAT-750

In 1993, three years after General Atomics assimilated Karem’s team, the Pentagon issued a requirement to support UN peacekeeping forces in the former Yugoslavia. What is often referred to as the Bosnian war took place between 1992 and 1995, and resulted in around 100,000 people killed, tens of thousands of women raped, and millions more displaced. In the serenity of the skies however, the GNAT-750 was flown to provide overhead surveillance for NATO convoys and for spotting Serbian artillery.

Because of the urgent need for surveillance as the war unfolded, existing, cumbersome, military acquisition procedures were controversially skipped over. The CIA was able to circumvent the Congressional block on UAV development because it operated outside of military jurisdiction. To recall, drone development in the military been effectively halted through the Congressional JPO. And this presented the perfect opportunity for the CIA. By 1993 the agency had become frustrated with poor quality satellite intelligence over Bosnia. Woolsey, then director of the CIA, was already acquainted with Karem, and looked to General Atomics for a plane that could provide a persistent aerial presence and real-time surveillance. Under the codename LOFTY VIEW, the CIA would operate the GNAT-750 in total secrecy. The GNAT first flew over Bosnia in February of 1994 from nearby Albania (according to Mark Mazzetti – the hangar was rented in exchange for two trucloads of wool blankets, and money came from Representative Charlie Wilson). According to the CIA director, “I could sit in my office, call up a classified channel and in an early version of e-mail type messages to a guy in Albania asking him to zoom in on things”.

But codename LOFTY VIEW was not a real success. The GNAT was vulnerable to inclement weather. And the biggest impediment was the communication device housed in the aircraft’s fuselage: the C-band line-of-sight data link only had a range of around 150 nautical miles. This meant that the drone could only be controlled from a relatively close proximity; seriously restrict its surveillance capabilities. The CIA initially tried to overcome this by using an intermediary aircraft to relay the data, thereby extending the flight orbit of the GNAT. But this relay did not solve the GNAT’s data problems. The surveillance imagery produced simply had too far to travel: from a GNAT-750, to a relay aircraft, to a ground station in Albania, to a satellite circulating the planet, and then finally, onwards to the CIA headquarters in Langley.

How a Predator worksGeneral Atomics responded with the Predator. The Predator drone extended the GNAT’s limited range with the addition of a Ku-band SATCOM data ink. The new satellite communications overcame the limited data link of the GNAT and the limitations of the C-band line-of-sight. In fact, a SATCOM link meant that American drone operators didn’t even have to be in same region or even continent as the drone. The Predator drones were first flown in June 1994, and were deployed to the Balkans under Operation Nomad Vigil and Operation Deliberate Force in 1995, the latter the name for the NATO air campaign against Bosnian Serb forces. Both the GNAT-750 and its offspring the Predator served simultaneously due the massive demand placed on surveillance aircraft. Future developments of the Predator included a de-icing system, reinforced wings, and a laser-guided targeting system: the latter two improvements were essential for weaponising the drone in its later life.

In 1995 Predators were shown in an aviation demonstration at Fort Bliss. Impressed by the drone’s capabilities, the U.S. Air Force soon established its very first UAV squadron, the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron at Indian Springs Auxiliary Airfield in Nevada, later named as Creech Air Force Base in 2005. Creech remains the current hub of American drone operations in Afghanistan.

After the CIA’s Predator drone spotted who it believed was bin Laden at Tarnak Farm, Afghanistan, in 2000 (more on this below), research went into shortening the kill-chain: getting Tomahawk missiles to fly from a submarine in the Arabian Sea to southern Afghanistan would take six hours to go through military protocols. The Predator’s Hellfire was the solution. At Indian Springs, Nevada, a program was born under the Air Force’s “Big Safari” office, a classified division in charge of developing secret intelligence programs for the military. In 2001 tests were made early in the year to turn the hunter into a killer.

In sum, what started in Abraham Karem’s Los Angeles garage as a funny-looking Albatross had become a Predator drone with global ambitions. And war would never quite be the same. But this is only half of the story.

A Tall Man in Robes

Osama bin Laden moved from Saudi Arabia to Peshawar, Pakistan in or around July of 1986. He was a well-known figure among Muslim Brotherhood-connected rebels, and helped finance the Afghan mujahideen, opening his first training facility in the same year.

By this time, the CIA had also funnelled millions of dollars to Afghan jihadists for half a decade (see Coll, 2004). Under Ronald Reagan’s Cold War warriors, the CIA had directly and indirectly aggrandized violent figures such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani. The latter figure, a respected Pashtun commander, had full CIA support, and his organization—the Taliban-linked Haqqani network—would later re-emerge as a terrorist organization and drone target in the ‘war on terror’.

By the early 1990s, bin Laden was certainly on the CIA’s radar, but Afghanistan, increasingly, was not. As the Cold War thawed, counter-terrorist activity and human intelligence in the region faded, leaving a massive blind-spot in the agency’s knowledge. When President Clinton signed Executive Order 12947 in 1995, which imposed sanctions against 12 terrorist groups around the world, neither al-Qaeda nor bin Laden made the list.

CIA officeThere was one exception to this intelligence malaise: the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC). The CTC was established in 1986, under the Directorate of Operations, and was designed to unify the disparate regional intelligence knowledges of the CIA’s station bureaus. In recognition of bin Laden’s growing importance to global terrorist operations, in January 1996 the CTC opened a new ‘desk’ solely to track him down. By this time, bin Laden had ingratiated himself with the Afghan Taliban, whose brutal regime ruled Kabul between 1996 and 2001. On February 23, 1998, bin Laden—previously known to the CIA as a financier rather than strategist—unveiled a key fatwa from his organization, the World Islamic front, called “The International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders”. The CIA viewed bin Laden’s escalating rhetoric, which called for the indiscriminate killing of Americans and Jews, with deep concern. After two American embassies in Africa were bombed in 1998, Clinton announced that bin Laden had launched a ‘terrorist war’ against the U.S. In retaliation to these bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, the American President approved the launch of seventy-five tomahawk missiles at Afghanistan. The missiles missed bin Laden, but did kill twenty or so militants. The hunt was still on.

During this time, the legality of bin Laden’s assassination was a constant discussion point. The CIA’s official legal authority to conduct covert operations stems from the powerful precedent of Executive Order 12333, signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, to “Conduct counterintelligence activities outside the United States” (1.8.C). However, the same act (2.11) states that “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination”. This long-standing ban on U.S. assassinations was relaxed by President Clinton in a 1998 Presidential Finding (or Memorandum of Notification) that allowed some lethal force against bin Laden and his lieutenants in Afghanistan. There remains confusion as to the actual wording and prescription of this Presidential finding due to the legal and bureaucratic debate surrounding whether or not bin Laden’s assassination was in violation of international law. By early 1999, George Tenet, director of the CIA, had become increasingly frustrated by the lack of attention given to the growing threat of al-Qaeda in Clinton’s cabinet. By now the CTC estimated that al-Qaeda was operating in 60 countries. Tenet had a plan to hunt bin Laden down, which came to be known as The Plan. He named Cofer Black as head of the CTC, and sought to focus CIA resources on al-Qaeda. His hire symbolized a more ‘kinetic’ of ‘paramilitary’ response to bin Laden. The gloves were coming off.

A Missed Opportunity

The CIA did have a history with drones prior to the Predator. In the first years of the agency’s CTC, its founding director, Dewey Clarridge, had sought drones to help search for American hostages in restricted areas of Beirut and Lebanon. Clarridge had also experimented with arming the drones with small rockets, but they were too inaccurate for their purpose. When the Air Force began demanding fast, jet-like drones in the 1990s, the CIA wasn’t interested: they preferred smaller drones that could take pictures in situations where satellites or spy planes could not. When the CIA secretly embraced the Predator drone in 1993, many in the Air Force were unhappy. But ultimately, the CIA arranged for Air Force teams trained by the Eleventh Reconnaissance Squadron at Nellis Air Force base to operate the agency’s clandestine drones. The Predator’s ability to hover above a target for hours, relaying high-resolution live surveillance, was invaluable.

Not everyone in the CIA was sold. Some saw the Predator as a technological fix that undermined the value of human-intelligence. As these bureaucratic debates raged on in the summer of 2000, Cofer Black, head of the CTC, was determined to weaponize the drone with an air-to-ground missile called a Hellfire. That very same summer, Uzbekistan agreed to allow Predator flights over Afghanistan from one of its own air bases. Despite the secrecy of this deal, the Uzbek government and the CIA were both extremely nervous that the control stations and vans used by CIA flight operators would attract unwanted attention. To address this problem, the Predator’s extended SATCOM data link enabled it to be controlled remotely from outside of Uzbekistan. Clinton agreed with this long-range solution, approving a limited ‘proof of concept mission’. This involved the bin Laden unit drawing up plans for 15 Predator flights, each lasting for just over twenty four hours, during which the drones surveyed bin Laden’s known haunts in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan. They wouldn’t have to wait long.

Tarnak Farm

While loitering over Tarnak Farm near Kandahar on September 7th, 2000, the Predator photographed what appeared to be bin Laden: a tall man dressed in Arab robes surrounded by a ring of armed bodyguards. Almost a year before the 9/11 attacks, the Predator had captured what the agency strongly believed to be the al-Qaeda leader. But at this time, the Predator was just a surveillance plane. And as winter fell in December, winds gathered in North Afghanistan and the Predator’s small engine struggled to fight the headwind gusts, which forced the drone to keep drifting back towards Uzbekistan. The CTC had no choice but to halt the operation. During this hiatus, Cofer Black hoped that lawyers would allow the CIA to fix missiles to the Predators. After years of searching, they had probably located bin Laden at Tarnak Farm, but were unable to take the shot. And yet, Tarnak Farm inside of Afghanistan was a complicated legal and ethical target. Clinton’s administration still had not labelled the Taliban a terrorist organization, and other government officials worried about the geopolitical fallout from striking a target that housed civilians—estimated to include perhaps one hundred women and children. For now at least, the Predator remain leashed.

In February 2001, under a newly elected Bush Administration, the U.S. State department’s lawyers waived concerns that an armed drone might violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This legislation was signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, and prevented ground launched ballistic and cruise missiles. As well as rubber stamping the Predator program, Hellfire missiles tests were successfully completed in exercises conducted in May and June. But the Bush administration wasn’t completely sold on drones or on Afghanistan, despite lobbying by the CIA.

By now of course, the armed Predator was virtually a CIA invention: a technology that perfectly embodied the agency’s desire to survey in secret from high in the sky. And yet, even by July 2001, the U.S. went on record to denounce Israel’s use of targeted killings. The U.S. ambassador to Israel said: “The United States government is very clearly on record as against targeted assassinations.… They are extrajudicial killings and we do not support that.” (New Yorker, 2009)

Hellfire

“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” was the headline written across President Bush’s Daily Brief as it was presented to him at his Texas ranch on the 6th of August. 9 days later, Cofer Black said “We are going to be struck soon” at the Pentagon’s classified annual conference. “Many Americans are going to die, and it could be in the U.S.” On September 4, 2001, in an important cabinet meeting, the director of the CIA presented the agency’s plan to operate the Predator drone – a lethal operation usually entrusted to the U.S. Air Force. In early September, Condoleezza Rice agreed with the CIA that an armed Predator was needed, but for now the agency should only pursue reconnaissance Predator flights in Afghanistan.

This changed just a week later. The armed Predator program was activated days after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, with Predators reaching Afghanistan by September 16th 2001, and armed Predators reaching the country on October 7th.

After 9/11 the CIA was authorized to take the “gloves off”, in the infamous words of Cofer Black. President Bush signed a directive that created a secret list of High Value Targets (HVTs) that the CIA was authorized to kill without further Presidential approval. The same broad-brush finding also enabled “disappearances” and the infamous network of global prisons and extraordinary rendition. John Rizzo, the former acting General Counsel of the CIA, authorized the finding. He said it allowed activities that were “unprecedented in my 25 years of experience at CIA” (quoted in PBS, 2011). The retired legal chief added, “Frankly, the finding was so aggressive and comprehensive that honestly there wasn’t much more that could have been added.”

Zahwar KiliThe first ever CIA drone attack was a disaster. The baptismal strike occurred on the 4th of February 2002. The agency’s Predator unleashed a Hellfire missile at a “tall man” and his lieutenants near the city of Khost, believing the man to be none other than bin Laden. But the analysts had acquired the wrong target. This time, it was innocent civilians gathering up scrap metal. All were killed. Perhaps in a mark of supreme irony that defines the drone wars more generally, the site of the strike was Zhawar Kili, a mujahideen complex built by Haqqani in the 1980s with CIA support. A further irony is just how short the drones were initially deployed in Afghanistan after years of lobbying. By April 2002, American focus had already switched to the mounting invasion of Iraq. Even if the Predators had left the country, the precedent was set: the Afghan Predator program was to become the model for far deadlier CIA activity in Pakistan.

On November 4, 2002, there was the first CIA targeted killing outside of a declared war zone using the “sweeping authority” given to the spy agency by Bush in September 2001. The target was  Al-Harethi, mastermind of the USS Cole bombing. Yemeni President Saleh was an “easy sell” for drone strikes: after al-Harethi was killed, the the Yemeni government claimed responsibility. But later in 2002 it leaked that the US was behind it Saleh was furious and banned drones, which wouldn’t  re-emerge in the country until 2010 with Yemen in turmoil. By then Saleh was in no position to object.

Richard Clarke, who served in both Clinton and Bush administrations as the top White House counterterrorism official, conducted a review of spying operations in Afghanistan, consulting longtime CIA analyst Allen. Unlike agency director George Tenet and head of Operations Pavitt, Allen was a fierce Predator advocate. Allen was told about secret Air Force tests in the desert: there was a chance, according to Pentagon officials, that the CIA could find bin Laden using a drone. Allen brought the Predator idea back to Richard Clarke. Figuring that Tenet and Pavitt would be against the idea, they went straight to the White House, inviting advocates Black, Allen, and Richard Blee, (head of the CTC’s bin Laden hunting unit – code name Alec Station).

Pavitt said the CIA should not be operating its own Air Force. Clarke’s response to Allen “if the Predator gets show down, the pilot goes home and fucks his wife, it’s OK. There’s no POW issue here”. But by June 2000, Clarke had won the argument, and the White House had approved moving Predators to the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan. Air Force engineers bounced signal off a satellite and relayed the feed through a ground station in Germany. Spying flights began in September 2000. For Clarke, driving out to Langley to watch the video beamed into the trailer in the parking lot was surreal: “It was just science fiction; it was unbelievable” (Mazzetti, p. 93).

But even after successful tests the CIA was divided. Pavitt was against it – he wanted more case officers rather than drones. And would the CIA or Pentagon fund it? Tenet was ambivalent at first – saying he thought it was the military, not the CIA, that should pull the trigger. And the CIA was also worried about future blowback – what if an administration down the line ruled the Predator program to be illegal? 9/11 ended these worries.

Pakistan

Since 2004 the CIA has been conducting aerial surveillance and targeted killings across Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Shaw and Akhter, 2012). But why 2004?

It all centers around an important Pashtun figure: military commander Nek Muhammad. He was  a “second generation” mujahedeen warrior who saw no necessary loyalty to Pakistan’s ISI, who had aided his predecessors in the Afghan mujahdeen of the 1980s. Muhammad first fought in 1993 with the Afghan Taliban against the Northern Alliance. He later hosted fleeing Arab and Chechen fighters that moved into Pakistan in 2001 and 2002.

Under pressure from George Bush and the CIA’s shadowy “global war on terror”, the Pakistan military invaded South Waziristan in March 2004. The local tribesmen were furious, and attacks against Frontier Corps posts increased.

Islamabad soon looked for a way out, and signed a peace deal with Muhammad in 2004, only  a month after combat operations had begun. This was a “deal” that greatly expanded Muhammad’s power, and would ultimately lead to the formation of the Pakistani Taliban or TTP. But he soon reneged on his promise, attacking Pakistani soldiers. Islamabad was furious.

And so it granted the CIA airspace for drone strikes. But there was one condition: Muhammad would be the first target. Moreover, the ISI insisted that they approve each and every strike, giving them control over the kill list, and small “flight boxes”. Partly this was because Islamabad didn’t want American drones poking their nose over its nuclear facilities or Kashmiri militant groups that were being trained for attacks against India.

Muhammad was killed on June 18, 2004 and CIA and ISI officials agreed Pakistan would take credit.

“After the killing of Nek Muhammad in Pakistan…the CIA began to see its future: not as the long-term jailers of America’s enemies but as a military organization that could erase them”. (Mazzetti, 2013, p. 121).

The CIA’s drone strikes are aimed at a number of militant factions in Pakistan. According to The New America Foundation the single biggest target has been the Taliban, followed by al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network—the latter, of course, is headed by the same family the CIA supported some decades earlier. According to the Conflict Monitoring Center, in 2011alone the CIA fired 242 Hellfire missiles in Pakistan, and at a cost of $68,000, it meant the agency spent at least $16.5 million to kill 609 people. Even after President Obama’s 2012 admission that he was keeping the drone strikes “on a very tight leash”, U.S. officials do not routinely comment on the CIA’s program. Most drone strikes have taken place since U.S. President Barack Obama came to power in 2009, with the most prolific year of strikes taking place in 2010. This increase is partly a result of changes in the way targets are identified. Since 2008 the CIA began rolling out “signature strikes” against targets outside of named kill lists. In 2008, former CIA Director Michael Hayden lobbied Bush to relax drone targeting constraints further in Pakistan. No longer was a named target on a kill-list a legal prerequisite to attack. Instead, the CIA could now target individuals based on their ‘pattern of life’ or their suspicious daily behaviour. These ‘signature strikes’ use the same legal justification as the Presidential finding signed by Bush immediately after 9/11, and then re-signed by Obama in 2009, and they represent the apex of modern biopower and surveillance, honed and developed over decades.

Conclusions: The Bureaucratic Present

The development of the drone program was not simply a technological operation; it was a bureaucratic process that required a series of legal objects to enable the Predator’s rise.

Today, the CTC still produces a list of targets that are reviewed and signed by the CIA’s general counsel. Multiple lawyers inhabit the seventh floor—the “power floor”—adjacent to the Director’s office. These lawyers produce a “five-page dossier” that covers the justification for an individual to be targeted. This shuffle of pens and papers, of files and folders, reminds us that the CIA is not a military organization; it is a civilian intelligence agency. Part of the power the CIA wields is a result of the permanent state of secrecy it exists within. Secrecy is a bureaucratic weapon institutionalized in the CIA, and a way of conducting war by other means. In effect, the CIA is an extremely adept civilian bureaucracy that shields itself from outside criticism, law, and public debate, in a way the U.S. military is unable to do. For the ACLU, the transformation is stark: “We’re seeing the CIA turn into more of a paramilitary organization without the oversight and accountability that we traditionally expect of the military”. And as Derek Gregory (2011, p. 241) sums up: “Accountability is limited enough in the case of a declared war; in an undeclared war it all but disappears”. Today, the CIA oversees a program of extrajudicial killings and geographic surveillance across the planet: in Pakistan, in Somalia, in Yemen, in Libya, in Iran, and beyond. Its global reach shows no sign of shrinking.

The Rise of the Predator Empire is a story about people; about the engineering prowess of an Israeli engineer and the determination of an exiled Saudi national. But it’s also a story about objects: about the technological capacities of the Amber, the GNAT, and finally the Predator drone: from the type of satellite data link used, to the sensing prowess of the camera, to the strength of the plane’s wings. It’s a story about legal objects called Presidential Findings that granted the CIA the ability to pursue its aggressive program in Afghanistan and then Pakistan. It’s the story of how a technology came to embody a kind of secrecy; materializing a set of social relations and bureaucratic powers.

But above all, it’s a story about geography—about the coming-together and assembling of all these objects in a distinctive time and space. And it’s a story that is far from over, as the people still living under the hum and buzz of Predators know only too well.

***

Please cite this article as: Ian G. R. Shaw, (2013), “The Rise of the Predator Empire: Tracing the History of U.S. Drones”, Understanding Empire, http://understandingempire.wordpress.com/2-0-a-brief-history-of-u-s-drones/

For more on the history of drone warfare history, check out this link.

***

References not linked in main text

9-11 Commission, 2004. ‘Written Statement for the Record of the Director of Central Intelligence’. http://www.9-11commission.gov/hearings/hearing8/tenet_statement.pdf

Coll, S. 2004. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. London: Penguin Books.

Dickson, P. 1976. The Electronic Battlefield.

Gregory, D. 2011. The everywhere war. The Geographical Journal 177, 238—250.

Mazzetti,  M. 2013, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a war at the Ends of the Earth.

Shaw, 2012. Intervention: From Baseworld to Droneworld. Antipode,  http://antipodefoundation.org/2012/08/14/intervention-from-baseworld-to-droneworld/

Shaw and Akhter, 2012. The Unbearable Humanness of Drone Warfare in FATA, Pakistan. Antipode 44(4), 1490-1509.

History Commons, 2010. ‘Complete 9/11 Timeline’. http://www.historycommons.org/timeline.jsp?timeline=complete_911_timeline&complete_911_timeline__war_on_terrorism__outside_iraq=complete_911_timeline_pakistan___afghanistan_drone_stikes

Washington Post, 2011. ‘Rise of the drone: From Calif. garage to multibillion-dollar defense industry’ http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/national-security/rise-of-the-drone-from-calif-garage-to-multibillion-dollar-defense-industry/2011/12/22/gIQACG8UEP_story_3.html

Washington Post, 2011. ‘CIA shifts focus to killing targets’ http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/cia-shifts-focus-to-killing-targets/2011/08/30/gIQA7MZGvJ_story.html

For more technical information on the Predator, see ‘How the Predator UAV Works’, http://science.howstuffworks.com/predator1.htm

3 Responses to History of U.S. Drones

  1. wonderfull history expand it pse.

  2. Angel says:

    This a very intriguing topic there’s. Always advantages and disadvantages to this but i always amazes me the fact the over the years what led to the creation of these unmmaned drones was the necessity on war times it really is cool

  3. Eli says:

    sorry that was a typo my sister took my laptop I meant to say great source

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