Essay: The Historical Rise of the Predator Drone

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


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, up to 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 (Shaw, 2012) overnight. Instead, there were a series of historical conditions, personalities, and processes that gave rise to this lethal atmosphere.

Drones 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. At the close of the First World War, Elmer Sperry’s automatic gyroscopic stabilizer was used to level out aircraft during flight. This technology was integral to the ‘Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane’ (or ‘torpedo’—a radio-controlled flying bomb that was in effect an early type of cruise missile).One of the first jet-propelled drones was the 1955 Ryan ‘Firebee’, a target drone that was later developed into the Ryan ‘Fire Fly’ and ‘Lightning Bug’, which was used for intelligence-gathering missions over Vietnam, China, and North Korea in the 1960s and early 1970s.

In this paper, I want to explore 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

Abraham 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 kept crashing. 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 Aircraft, which in turn sold it to San Diego-based General Atomics in 1990. General Atomics decided to continue development of the GNAT-750, and Karem was made part of the company’s subsidiary called General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.

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 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.

General 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.

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.

There 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.

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)


“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.”

The 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.

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


9-11 Commission, 2004. ‘Written Statement for the Record of the Director of Central Intelligence’.

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.

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

Shaw, 2012. Intervention: From Baseworld to Droneworld. Antipode

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’.

Washington Post, 2011. ‘Rise of the drone: From Calif. garage to multibillion-dollar defense industry’

Washington Post, 2011. ‘CIA shifts focus to killing targets’

For more technical information on the Predator, see ‘How the Predator UAV Works’,

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2 Responses to Essay: The Historical Rise of the Predator Drone

  1. Pingback: A Deadly Atmosphere: The Emerging Dronification of Space | Understanding Empire

  2. Pingback: Drones and ‘the world as free-fire zone’ | geographical imaginations

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