Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution

Richard Whittle’s Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution is the chronicle of an ingenious, proficient piece of technology that many people deplore or even detest. Designated by the U.S. Air Force as a “Tier II” MALE UAV (medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle), the Predator drone is a remote-controlled surveillance and killing machine. Predator is a thorough, well-crafted narrative scrutinizing the invention and history of the Predator and offers an invaluable account of how the Pentagon, lawmakers, and private businesses nurture (or subvert) new projects. Inevitably, the book raises moral questions.

I can only offer a partial summary of Predator because the author provides a (adeptly rendered) plenitude of technical detail and bureaucratic maneuvering. Schemes to build unmanned aircraft go back at least to World War I, but Whittle’s story begins in the aftermath of Israel’s 1973 Yom Kippur War. An Israeli engineer (and a genius, according to Whittle), who worked for the state-owned Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), was asked by a senior officer in the Israeli Air Force to design a decoy rocket that could pinpoint enemy antiaircraft missiles and guns. In less than a day that engineer, Abraham Karem, provided a blueprint—not for a rocket, but for an unmanned “small target drone.” He subsequently became fascinated with how drones could change warfare. “Karem realized that an unmanned aircraft with the right capabilities could do far more than merely trick [antiaircraft] batteries into revealing their locations,” writes Whittle. “A remotely controlled drone armed with antitank missiles and designed to loiter in the sky for hours at a time could be one way to defeat—or better yet, deter—another invasion of Israel.” Soon after working on the target drone, Karem left IAI, disgusted by its bureaucratic sloth and waste, and started his own company. But his projects were always rejected by the military, probably because of IAI’s power in Israel. Karem concluded that America might be more welcoming of his talent, and so in 1977 he and his wife immigrated to the United States and settled in Los Angeles.

In 1980 Karem received funds from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create an improved drone. By 1983, working in his garage with just two assistants, Karem “had not only built a better [drone] prototype but also improved nearly every piece of equipment needed to operate it.” Moreover, the aircraft “could have remained airborne an astonishing forty-eight hours or more—five to ten times as long as any [drone] ever flown.” That last item—the ability to stay in the air for lengthy periods of time—would become crucial to the Predator’s eventual success.

In 1985 the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marines agreed to fund Karem’s plan for an even more sophisticated UAV. He delivered yet again: at a trade fair in 1988, Karem’s latest aircraft remained in flight “a phenomenal thirty-eight hours and twenty-two minutes after takeoff,” Whittle reports, “several hours longer than any other drone ever demonstrated.” Alas, Karem was a better inventor than a businessman. He didn’t suffer fools or (same thing?) bureaucrats gladly, and eventually—probably inevitably—he ran afoul of his Navy and government overseers. His company, Leading Systems, ran out of money in late 1989 and declared bankruptcy. In 1991, General Atomics, a business owned by brothers Neal and Linden Blue, acquired the assets of Leading Systems and hired Karem and ten of his colleagues as salaried employees. (Karem left in 1994.)

The Pentagon awarded General Atomics a contract to build a new, even more capable UAV in January 1994. The company had six months to construct a successful drone. Utilizing features in Karem’s earlier prototypes, General Atomics succeeded. The new aircraft was named the MQ-1 Predator.

The Predator was first deployed by the Army in 1995 in Bosnia and it made a good impression on the Defense Department. The Air Force then became interested in the Predator and by 1997 had taken control of its acquisition and development. By 2000, after Islamic terrorists attacked two U.S. embassies in Africa and the destroyer USS Cole, the Predator became integral to the war on Islamic terrorism—at least after a while. There was, initially, contention within the government over whether armed drones violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. In December 2000, the government finally decided it didn’t fit the description. Less than nine months later, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda crashed airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

There was now, however, another legal complication to be resolved before the Predator could be used to try to kill Osama bin Laden: the CIA was concerned that killing him would violate a 1981 executive order signed by President Ronald Reagan, an order stating that “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” The agency was also concerned that it would “take the blame if an attempt to kill bin Laden with the Predator went awry, especially if there was collateral damage.” The military, in turn, was reluctant to “pull the trigger” on armed UAVs if war wasn’t officially declared. On September 17, 2001, less than a week after 9/11, President George W. Bush “signed a CIA Memorandum of Notification modifying the ban on assassinations in [Reagan’s executive order] and authorizing lethal covert action to disrupt al-Qaeda. The memorandum specifically empowered the CIA to use the armed Predator for that purpose.”

The Predator wouldn’t be the means used to finally kill bin Laden, but it proved its military worth in the ensuing years. Two examples: Whittle offers a persuasive case that the vehicle played a “central” role in the killing of Mohammed Atef, “the third most important member of al-Qaeda.” And the Predator’s surveillance devices and Hellfire missiles helped save trapped U.S. troops in a fierce battle at “Roberts Ridge” in Afghanistan. As of 2010, the Air Force possessed 165 armed Predators. In Whittle’s words, the Predator “not only changed the military, the CIA and warfare itself, but also led the way into a new technological age.”

Richard Whittle, who covered the Pentagon for over twenty years for the Dallas Morning News, writes that his book “is based on five years of reporting and hundreds of interviews with the insiders who made the Predator what it became.” I believe him. His research is meticulous, perhaps—at times—overly meticulous. But he is always in command of his material, which makes him an excellent, trustworthy guide through the labyrinths of our military-industrial complex, particularly the Pentagon and the administrations overseeing it. Predator provides a first-rate look at how inspiration, creativity, hard work, personality conflicts, rivalries, egos, political calculations, power plays, avarice, and, yes, fatuity, shape or scuttle new weapons.

It is clear from this book that Whittle admires most of the inventors, engineers, and military officers that he writes about. But, fair reporter that he is, he also addresses (albeit briefly) the moral issues that some have broached about drone warfare. “In 2010 the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions denounced U.S. drone strikes and the secrecy surrounding their conduct as an ‘ill-defined license to kill without accountability.’ More Americans expressed misgivings the following year after a drone strike in Yemen killed U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, an Islamic militant said to have aided and abetted al-Qaeda operations. …Critics questioned whether it was legal to kill a U.S. citizen in places such as Yemen, which was not at war with the United States, and without affording the person his or her constitutional rights.”

Whittle quotes a 2013 speech by President Barack Obama in which the president defended the use of UAVs, saying, “drone strikes were legal under America’s ‘legitimate claim of self-defense’ against al-Qaeda and other terrorists” and that they “would be used only when there was no alternative means of preventing a terrorist posing a ‘continuing, imminent threat’ to ‘U. S. persons’ and when there was a ‘near certainty’ that no ‘non-combatants’ would be injured or killed.” Considering that Islamic terrorists are insidious, brutal enemies of the United States who don’t adhere to the traditional rules of war, I think that Obama’s policy is judicious, and about as civilized as it is possible to be in this ghastly conflict. Moreover, while I’m no expert on weaponry, I don’t see much of a difference between UAVs and other long-range armaments such as cruise missiles, artillery, and bombers. At the very least, opponents of the use of the Predator ought to know that Whittle offers ample proof that the moral and legal issues raised by its use have been earnestly contemplated and debated in the Pentagon and CIA.

Apropos of moral conundrums, Whittle reports on something that he apparently doesn’t see as an ethical problem (at least he doesn’t discuss it as such), but that I do. During the period of time covered in this book, General Atomics staffers helped pilot the drones in combat missions. I find this disquieting because these operatives were not government employees; they were, in effect, high-tech mercenaries. And mercenaries usually aren’t answerable to anyone.

Near the end of Predator, its author writes: “Only two things about the drone revolution seem certain. First, the new UAV technology is here to stay. Second, society needs to figure out how to cope with its implications.” This book will help its readers ponder those far-reaching implications.