Biplanes, Satellites, and Drones: A High Resolution History of Eyes in the Sky
Summary and Keywords
As we find ourselves bearing witness—even in our own backyards—to what is increasingly being referred to as the “drone revolution,” it might be a good time to turn our attention back in time and figure out how, exactly, we got here.
The large-scale use of drones for national defense and law enforcement is a relatively recent development, but unmanned aerial surveillance draws from a doctrine that is as old as flight itself. Though the fundamental logic of aerial surveillance has remained the same—to put an eye in the sky so that one may look down upon one’s enemies—the technology has evolved dramatically over this period, driving shifts in aerial surveillance theory and practice. New technologies enable new techniques that, in turn, inspire new ways of thinking about how to spy from the sky, and produce new experiences for those being watched. Our present drone revolution, which has itself driven what is being called the “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) revolution,” is the result of this process played out over an entire century.
The unmanned aerial spying efforts of the United States military and intelligence community have a particularly long and influential history, beginning with the Union Army’s manned observation balloon corps of the Civil War. Our story begins, in earnest, with fragile and failure-prone “aerial torpedos” in the First World War and an innovative and overlooked live video transmission system from the 1930s, through the CIA’s little-known—and radically forward-thinking—Samos spy satellite program of the late 1950s and a series of extraordinarily ambitious Cold War drone programs, up to the adoption of drones over Bosnia in the 1990s. Together, these episodes show how we got the drones of today and realized the core principles that define aerial spycraft (that is, how to find and watch “the bad guys”) in the 21st century: cover as much ground as possible; process and disseminate what you collect as quickly as possible, ideally, as close as you can get to real-time; and be as persistent as possible.
The drones and high-resolution aerial cameras that are finding their way into the tool-kits of police departments will bring these principles along with them. Even if the growing number of law enforcement officers now using this technology aren’t fully aware of the long legacy of aerial surveillance that they are joining, the influence of this formative history of surveillance on their aerial crime-fighting operations is evident. Just as aerial surveillance transformed the battlefield, it will have a similarly profound effect on the experience and tactics of those operating the cameras, as well as, crucially, those individuals being watched by them. By grasping this history, we can better understand not only why and how drones are being used to fight crime, but also what to expect when every police department in the country owns an eye in the sky.
We are in the midst of a drone revolution. At any given time, hundreds of U.S. military drones are flying in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Iraq. Some are as large as commercial airliners; others weigh just a few pounds. Many of the larger aircraft are separated from their operators by thousands of miles (U.S. Air Force, 2015). The operators themselves may likewise be thousands of miles from the commanders or government officials who are instructing them where to go, what to look at, and what to do. Some of these drones are armed with missiles. Since the beginning of the War on Terror, and particularly in the last eight years, those weaponized drones have served as the very tip of the spear in the effort to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda,” as President Obama put it in 2009. Since 2009, according to a report released by the Director of National Intelligence, the United States has conducted approximately 400 strikes outside of declared war zones, killing approximately 2,500 combatants and a highly contested number of civilians (Director of National Intelligence, 2016). This program, driven largely by the Executive Branch under Barack Obama—which pivoted toward strikes as an alternative to the extraordinary rendition and interrogation program that largely defined the previous administration’s counterterrorism policy—has proven to be such a signature policy, both fiercely lauded and excoriated by observers, that some have gone so far as to describe Obama’s administration as “the drone presidency” (Cole, 2016). While numerous polls show that a majority of Americans approve of drone strikes (Dilanian & Swanson, 2016)—and a majority of the rest of the world doesn’t (Fuller, 2015)—commentators within the United States have called the drone strike program “an indelible legacy—and a shame” (Downie, 2016).
Even greater numbers of non-weaponized drones have become a prized element of the Pentagon’s toolkit in all of its major military engagements, providing persistent airborne intelligence that has, by many accounts, completely revolutionized the way battles are fought. As former Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno and his co-authors put it, the technology promises to cut through the fog of war (2008, p. 55), and, as Pedrozo argues, achieve greater precision that could reduce collateral damage (2011, p. 250). Though even just as surveillance systems drones have not operated purely without controversy.
Now, in part inspired by the success of these systems abroad, and as a result of recent technological developments that make the technology far cheaper and easier to use, law enforcement agencies in the United States are increasingly turning to small unmanned aircraft to pursue adversaries and establish what is referred to as situational awareness during operations (Drury, Riek & Rackliffe). Like the generals of the First World War who were unsure of how to use a new weapons system called the airplane, (Sherman, 1921), precocious law enforcement agencies are only beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible. In the context of law enforcement, writes Calo, “unmanned aircraft systems threaten to perfect the art of surveillance” (Calo, 2011, p. 30). As the drone has jumped from the military sphere to the civil sphere, and then proliferated, a broad public discussion is underway to address the potential concerns that arise from the use of this new aerial surveillance capability. Broader discussions about police militarization also often touch on drones as an example of how law enforcement is increasingly adopting military tools and tactics, and as an example of the consequences of that process.
These two parallel tracks of drone proliferation and use share a common history, driven by the same motivating logic, The Stare Constant.
The Stare Constant
The fact that there is so much ground to be covered in the use and study of drones should not be taken to mean that the technology itself is new, or that the logic that motivates its use is a recent innovation. Though the drone, which “allows us to project our intelligence into the air and to exert our influence over vast expanses of space” as Benjamin Wallace Wells wrote in New York Magazine (2014), may seem utterly modern, unmanned technology has existed for over a century; the impulse to project our intelligence has always driven the development of the technology. Indeed, in every major conflict since the First World War, the U.S. military has invested significant resources in the pursuit of unmanned flight as a way of projecting and gathering intelligence and exerting influence over broader and more inaccessible swathes of territory than could be covered by other means.
To be sure, the drones of today—and the types of operations for which they are used—bear little resemblance to the drones of a century ago, or even two decades ago. While the technology may change in leaps and bounds, and while the tactical and strategic picture always evolves (in turn, driving the development of the technology, generating demand for different types of technologies at different times), the basic desire to collect intelligence from the sky, an impulse that is as old as flight itself, remains constant, and is unlikely to waver as long as flight remains a part of warfare. We might describe this logic as “The Stare Constant.”
Consider the automobile as an analog. Though the technology is advancing constantly, and even though driverless car technology will no doubt radically shift the way we use the automobile and how it fits into our lives (Wayner, 2015), the basic motivation underlying the use of the automobile—the need to transport things such as humans or goods from one place to another—remains the same. Though a Model T Ford and a self-driving car might have very little in common with each other on a technical level, they were both developed for the same purpose. Likewise, a common core motivation has consistently fueled the evolution of airborne intelligence collection over the last two centuries. As Chamayou writes, “The eye of God, with its overhanging gaze, embraces the entire world . . .. In many respects, the drone dreams of achieving through technology a miniature equivalence to that fictional eye of God” (Chamayou & Lloyd, 2015, p. 37).
Military planners today talk about setting up a constant stare (McCurley & Maurer, 2015, p. 321) over a target by flying a sequence of drones in orbit overhead; we might therefore call this constant value “the stare constant.” This is a reliable constant in the evolving and increasingly multifaceted equation that represents drone use and drone effects.
Drones are only now becoming a predominant airborne surveillance tool as a function of this constant and its interaction with the variables outlined in the above equation. This formula reflects how the drone revolution and, in particular, the revolutionary proliferation of drone technology in law enforcement are the result of two variable factors in confluence. One is the development of the technology (enabling technologies) to a point where it became reliable, robust, and usable. The other (represented by “Strategic and Tactical Needs”) is the transition from the Cold War—which focused on fixed installations like intercontinental ballistic missile sites and, as a result, engendered an aerial intelligence collection philosophy that privileged reconnaissance over surveillance—to the Global War on Terror, which created a demand for persistent surveillance of individuals and the tracking of networks that span many countries. The drone, in other words, has advanced to a stage where it is reliable and useful, and this has coincided with a shift in the tactical needs of the United States—needs to which the drone is very well suited.
Now, inspired by the success of drones on the battlefield, and thanks to recent advances that have made drones affordable and usable, law enforcement is acquiring unmanned aircraft at an accelerating pace. Police departments have been using manned aircraft, particularly helicopters, for aerial surveillance and overwatch for decades (Police Aviation: A history 1914–1990). Histories of police aviation demonstrate that the Stare Constant has been just as much a factor among law enforcement agencies as it has been in the military. Drones enable law enforcement to do what it has done in the past at a fraction of the cost. Helicopters are expensive—each of the New York Police Department’s helicopters are reported to cost nearly $10 million ($14 million if you count its payload and onboard equipment) (First Look, 2012)— and they require pilots with extensive training. A quadcopter aerial data collection drone can cost as little as $1,000, and can be piloted by a regular officer holding a simple certification. Drones also enable police departments to accomplish certain additional types of tasks, like flying at very low altitude, that would not be possible with manned aircraft.
As a result, police drones are becoming common. As of March 2017, over 350 public safety agencies in the United States, many of which are police departments and sheriff’s offices, operate drones of some kind (Gettinger, 2017). Drones have been used, or proposed, for “traffic accident investigation; forensics; search and rescue; tactical operations; emergency and disaster response; crowd control; HAZMAT/CBRNE management; fire investigation and damage assessment and fire management” (Kimery, 2013), all of which are operations in which an aerial surveillance capability would provide information that is difficult or impossible to access from the ground. The Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department in North Dakota was among the first in the country to obtain Federal Aviation Administration permission to use drones for police work. In an FAQ page, the department describes the appeal of drones for police operations:
North Dakota’s endless cornfields have provided the perfect means of escape for fleeing suspects in police chases . . .. The Grand Forks County Sherriff’s Department hopes to use drones to aid police in surveillance. Police have effectively used thermal camera-equipped drones to search for escaping suspects in large farms under the cover of darkness. Officials in Grand Forks plan to continue to use the drones to hunt for wanted criminals, gain visuals of dangerous areas, conduct crime scene investigation, and search for missing people.
(Grand Forks Drone Assisted Policing, 2015)
It is fairly clear that having an eye in the sky during battle will allow you to gather useful information—information that is used to build situational awareness—that might be difficult, dangerous, or impossible to gather on the ground. Law enforcers who remain engaged in the “war on crime” are driven by similar motivations. For example, on June 27, 2016, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department used a $1,200 drone to watch over an operation to bust an illegal gambling house. As the officers moved through the site, the drone spotted an individual who fled the site on foot. The officers were alerted to the suspect’s break for freedom and were able to apprehend him before he got away (Farivar, 2016). Exactly 100 years earlier, a Russian General, Aleksei Brusilov, used aerial reconnaissance photography to plan a successful offensive on the Southwestern front (Woodward, 2009, p. 118). Though the two operations were very different, they are connected by the common underlying logic of aerial surveillance, the Stare Constant.
Present Day Military Drone Use
Military drones as they exist today are most accurately defined (and have made the greatest impact) as intelligence collection devices—a subset of which is sometimes armed. It is, likewise, as surveillance devices, not killing devices, that drones are serving in law enforcement. Though the armed drones portrayed in movies like Eye in the Sky and Good Kill literally and figuratively get most of the screen time in the popular discussion, these aircraft represent a tiny minority of the “birds” that make up the full ecosystem of drones operated by the United States today. Probably less than 10% of U.S. Predator and Reaper drones carry weapons (by author’s estimate), and those weapons are only deployed occasionally. Only three types of drones deployed by the United States can carry weapons, the MQ-1 Predator A, the Army’s Predator variant, the Gray Eagle (Gray Eagle UAS, n.d.) and the MQ-9 Predator B, also known as the Reaper (MQ-9 Reaper/Predator B, n.d.).
What sets the drones of today apart from manned aircraft—and from earlier generations of drones—is the ability to produce intelligence far more effectively and persistently than manned alternatives. Even members of the military community, such as Gen. Michael Flynn, who actively opposes drone strikes outside of declared war zones, often still contend that the surveillant power of drones is a beneficial feature that is the key to their appeal (Flynn, Juergens, & Cantrell, 2008). The key facet of that appeal of large drones as an intelligence collection device is persistence. Unlike a fighter jet, which is limited by its massive fuel consumption, the prop-driven Predator can fly for up to 24 hours on a single tank, and a Reaper can fly for more than 30 hours (Gray Eagle UAS, n.d.). Likewise, unmanned aircraft are not limited by the physical limits of their pilots. A typical mission for an Air Force U-2 Dragon Lady aerial reconnaissance plane might last between 10 and 12 hours, beyond which the single pilot ceases to be effective (Wade, Serres, Bryant, Wright, & Dodson, 2014). But a single long-endurance drone can be flown by numerous pilots who tag in and tag out as necessary. Switching pilots is as simple as switching seats in the ground control station.
Drones are used to persistently orbit over targets with an unblinking gaze, relaying information to users on the ground in real time as it is absorbed by the drone’s sensors. To ensure that the surveillance of a target is truly persistent, drones are organized into so-called Combat Air Patrols (CAP). Each CAP consists of four drones that operate in rotation, a bit like a rotation of several detectives conducting 24/7 surveillance of, say, a mob boss. While one drone orbits the target, a second drone will be en route from the base to replace it; meanwhile, a third drone that has been replaced by the drone currently in orbit will be en route back to base. A fourth drone waits on the ground as a backup (Majumdar, 2015).
This persistence lends itself well to the use of Full Motion Video (FMV) cameras, which are used for conducting over-watch of friendly ground forces during patrols and operations, as well as detailed surveillance of mobile targets, especially vehicles, individuals, or groups of people. Compared to a series of still photographs, FMV surveillance, which is transmitted live to intelligence analysts, commanders, and the troops on the ground, allows you to monitor events in real-time. As a surveillance tool, FMV drones that stalk the enemy allow the military to learn a great deal about their daily schedule, the places they frequent, how they get around, and what they do (Department of Defense, 2011). Furthermore, by following an individual, one is able to identify whom he meets with on a regular basis, thus expanding one’s portrait of the organization of interest. A large drone is, in this regard, a bit like a detective whose principal purpose is to collect intelligence, and who will therefore watch subjects for days on end, recording every detail of their daily routines and their associations.
Drones are also used to collect intelligence in the lead-up to an operation at a specific location. In the weeks leading up to the SEAL Team Six raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, the Air Force reportedly flew its highly classified RQ-170 surveillance drones over Abottobad in order to establish a detailed “pattern of life” for the inhabitants of bin Laden’s compound (Darack, 2016), which would have allowed them to select the most effective time and day to conduct the operation. Developing such “patterns of life” is now a common practice.
The drone has also fed into a paradigm known as activity-based intelligence (ABI). In contrast to the Cold War intelligence model, which focused on identifying and tracking military power and socialist movements, both of which are represented by relatively large “objects” (airfields, missile sites, coups de etat, etc.), ABI emphasizes the sorting of vast quantities of many types of data to build a clear picture of individuals of interest, their behaviors, and their human networks. This model also privileges persistence—the stare—along with big data methodologies and the fusion of information from diverse sources, including signals such as cell phone communications, as well as social media (Phillips, 2012).
The ABI-centric conflicts of today have been described by some observers as something more akin to policing than warfighting (Blum & Heymann, 2010, p. 159). It therefore comes as little surprise that some of the tactics enabled by drone warfare are increasingly popping up in the law enforcement sphere, where an equivalent tactic has been referred to as intelligence led policing (Peterson, 2005).
For commanders, another emblematic advantage to the drone, which transmits its video instantaneously to the ground, is the way that it can allow decisions to be made in real time (Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, 2013). With other reconnaissance aircraft, it might take 48 hours or more to receive intelligence on a target (Conner, Lambertson, & Roberson, 2005, p. 1; Cross, 1996). But drones allow instantaneous and ongoing access to up-to-date intelligence from above. In 2002, the Air Force deployed a device called Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER) that delivers live video directly from a Predator to troops on the ground. ROVER effectively closed the gap between intelligence collection and its use by troops on the ground. As of 2013, over 18,000 units had been produced (Grant, 2013, p. 39). A drone conducting a routine over-watch of a patrol of foot soldiers can respond in real-time to events on the ground. Say a drone spots an individual of interest—a decision can be made in real time to follow that individual (a satellite, on the other hand, has no choice but to continue its orbit). Or, if a ground patrol wants an aerial view of an area that is beyond their line of sight (say, around a bend in a road), it can direct the drone to position its sensors on that place and look for as long as necessary (Grant, 2013), relaying that image directly to the ground forces.
Charles Faint and Michael Harris describe this as “the establishment of a true symbiotic relationship between the operations and intelligence warfighting functions” (Faint & Harris, 2012). This close symbiotic relationship has long existed between airborne intelligence and operations units—indeed, aerial observers in balloons and, later, in airplanes have directed artillery fire in near real-time since as early as the Civil War (Wagner, Gallagher, & Finkelman, 2002, p. 365)—but the current system has achieved a level of complexity and sophistication that is unprecedented. In this regard, the use of drones for ground troop support highlights the core appeal of present day drones: the ability to produce intelligence that is localized, persistent, and immediately accessible, compared to previous models of airborne intelligence collection, which were not instantaneous or persistent.
All together, the use of large, persistent surveillance drones in particular has been a key factor in what has come to be known in certain circles as the “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) revolution.” Broadly speaking, this phenomenon refers to rapid expansion in the quantity of intelligence data collected by the U.S. military, and the attendant shift in strategies and tactics, which emphasize real-time intelligence input, increased attack precision enabled by higher resolution intelligence, and a shortened decision cycle (Sirak, 2010), a transformation Chamayou refers to as “a revolution in sighting” (Chamayou & Lloyd, 2015, p. 38). As a result of this revolution, the Air Force’s surveillance and intelligence “enterprise,” as it is sometimes called (U.S. Air Force, 2014) has grown to a level of size and influence that would have been unimaginable to military planners and experts just a generation earlier. ISR has become so important to the U.S. military that an entire Air Force, the 25th Air Force, was set up to solely handle ISR operations (25th Air Force History, n.d.). The number of strategic reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft in active Air Force inventory has increased by an order of magnitude in the past two decades; large unmanned aircraft are the primary drivers of that increase. Today, there are nearly 350 Reapers, Predators, and Global Hawks in Active Inventory (USAF Almanac, 2015). Across all the armed services, the growth is equally startling. According to an unclassified 2012 report published by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the number of ISR aircraft used by the entire DoD “in theater” increased by 238% between 2008 and 2012. One third of all U.S. military aircraft, the report notes, are now unmanned (U.S. House, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, p. iv).
Prior to the ISR Revolution, the military used relatively few aircraft. Fifty percent of all imagery used by U.S. armed forces during the First Gulf War was provided by nine U-2 Dragon Lady high-altitude spy planes (Best & Bolkcom, 2000, p. 6). Nowadays, the Air Force might dedicate a rotation of four Reapers to maintain a 24-hour-a-day orbit over a single high-value target individual.
The quantity of data produced by this fleet of persistent aircraft is unfathomably large. For example, a single RQ-4 Global Hawk, the U.S. Air Force’s large high-altitude long-endurance surveillance drone, requires more bandwidth (that is, the capacity of its communications link, which transfers live video from the drone’s camera to the ground) than the total bandwidth used by the entire U.S. armed forces during the First Gulf War (Satellite Bandwidth). This has driven growth in the number of intelligence analysts who watch the feeds from drones, as well as the establishment of a communications infrastructure called the Distributed Common Ground System—which is actually categorized as a weapon, just like a Predator or a Reaper—that feeds drone video and an array of other intelligence products to personnel stationed anywhere from Sigonella, Italy to Special Operations Command headquarters in Florida, to the White House situation room (Pawlyk, 2014; U.S. Air Force, 2015). Altogether, as a result of these systems in combination with drones, the military is able to collect, analyze, and disseminate greater quantities of surveillance material in a shorter time period than ever before.
Someday, the large persistent drones that have been most transformative in the military sphere will be used for major law enforcement operations in domestic airspace. But that won’t happen for a few years, as large drones are mostly barred from flying in public desegregated U.S. airspace (Federal Aviation Administration, 2013). The only exception to this is the longest running domestic law enforcement drone program, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency’s airborne unmanned aircraft initiative. The CBP has been quietly operating a small fleet of Reaper surveillance drones over U.S. borders since 2005, employing many of the practices seen in the military sphere (United States, Department of Homeland Security, 2014, pp. 2, 4).
Presently, the drones being adopted by law enforcement are small, generally weighing less than 55 lbs. These systems are relatively cheap, easy to operate, and do not require complex airworthiness certifications. The drones that make up the majority of systems in current law enforcement arsenals are drawn from the civilian consumer market, which has experienced a boom in recent years. This boom was driven by the emergence of cheap microprocessors, GPS, and gyroscopes—devices that give smartphones the ability to sense their location, movement, and orientation in space (Paumgarten, 2012). When applied to unmanned aircraft, these devices turned what had originally been a very difficult pastime, flying remote-control airplanes, into a very simple one that could be pursued for recreation, profit, and humanitarian ends by a wide variety of users. This has likewise made drone technology accessible to police departments with small budgets and little aviation expertise. Drones like the DJI Phantom—a small, plastic camera-equipped “multicopter” drone first released in 2012—have sold in the millions, and have found uses for everything from infrastructure inspection to precision agriculture, wedding photography, humanitarian efforts, security, and mapping. The growing use of commercial drones raises difficult questions around privacy, property rights, and data collection. It is an important case study in the mini tech booms that yield tremendous economic gains while also challenging social norms, modes, and policies.
The vast majority of drones in the U.S. military’s arsenal are also small. These drones, which generally have an endurance of one or two hours, are not operated from thousands of miles away, but rather by soldiers on the ground below the aircraft. They do not conduct 24/7 pattern of life surveillance; instead, they are used as an eye in the sky to build situational awareness during operations. For example, the U.S. Marine Corps equips many of its ground units with the RQ-11 Raven, a hand-launched remotely piloted airplane that’s about the size of a large dog (Group 1 Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems [SUAS] Training and Logistics Support Activity [TALSA], 2014). Such aircraft can be used to peek over hills or stake out enemy positions, beaming video back in real-time to the soldiers. These kits are enormously popular. They yield many of the benefits that one gets from a larger airplane or drone at a fraction of the cost and complexity. A unit wishing to gather similar intelligence on an enemy position a couple of decades ago would have needed to send a manned aircraft, or an unlucky visual ground observer. The military’s small drone programs provide the clearest example of how police departments are likely to use drones in the near future. As yet, very little scholarly inquiry and analysis have been applied to the use of small drones by the military.
Critiques of Modern Drone Use
The rise of the drone has inspired a large body of critical academic literature that seeks to interrogate and challenge the use of unmanned aerial technology in warfare. Much of this literature focuses on the use of weaponized drones for targeted killing. As Chamayou points out, before U.S. drones were first armed in the early 2000s, these aircraft were “just eyes, not weapons” (Chamayou & Lloyd, 2015, p. 29). In Chamayou’s, telling, it was only once these systems could act upon their surveillance to conduct strikes—combining the “sensor” and the “shooter” in a single platform, as Deptula and Marrs put it (2009, p. 12)—that they achieved for the military a condition of “permanent lethal surveillance” (Chamayou & Lloyd, 2015, p. 45).
The strictly surveillant use of drones has been nonetheless attended by a degree of controversy and criticism, though the concerns arising from the strike program—which revolve around considerations of international humanitarian law, human rights, sovereignty, and, on a conceptual level, the “subjugation of those marked as Other” (Wall & Monahan, 2011, p. 250)—are not equally applied to drone surveillance, which has instead drawn criticism for engendering a bureaucratic, asymmetric, and “panoptic” vision of warfare (Badalič, 2015). The surveillance capability of drones is recognized by the academic community as a key facet of what Shaw has described as “the Predator empire,” a “regime of biopolitical power that according to Foucault has ‘life’ as its target,” (Shaw, 2013, p. 5), what Baggiarini contends is a regime of “high-tech expressions of pre-modern sovereign violence” (Baggiarini, 2015, p. 130), and Wall and Monahan call “violent articulations of US imperialism and nationalism” (Wall & Monahan, 2011, p. 250). Within this construct, the surveillance capability of the drone is considered to represent “a topological power that folds the spaces of the affiliate into the surveillance machinery of the Homeland” (Shaw, 2013, p. 17) and a tool for “algorithmic modes of observation,” particularly if used according to the ABI paradigm (Franz, 2016). These critiques describe the drone as a chief enabler and epitome of “late modern” warfare and everything that it represents, though Gregory (2014) adds a key caveat: “Drones have undoubtedly made a difference to the conduct of later modern war—and, in the case of targeted killing, to its transformation into something else altogether—but their use cannot be severed from the matrix of military and paramilitary violence of which they are but a part.”
The use of drones operated at distances of several thousand miles represents a high manifestation of the Stare Constant logic, of the instinct to see as much as possible from the greatest possible standoff distance. Their use has therefore provoked a discussion around their effect on the experience of warfare for the pilot. Within the military, in 2013, a significant controversy arose regarding whether drone pilots ought to be given awarded medals like other soldiers (LaGrone, 2013), and while drone pilots are now eligible for medals, there are likely still many in the defense community who question whether drone pilots ought to be considered true warriors in the traditional sense of the term. The scholarly community has picked up on and expanded upon this controversy. In describing what they call “the drone stare,” a parallel but different concept to the Stare Constant, Wall and Monahan describe the logic that has driven the popularity of long-distance drone operations as “processes that seek to insulate pilots and allies from direct harm while subjecting targets to ‘precision’ scrutiny and/or attack’” (2011, p. 250). Wall and Monahan point to a common critique stemming from the drone’s ability to provide a clearer, more persistent view of the ground at greater distances than any other option: “The techno-scientific mediation of modern-day weapons systems and the symbolic mediation of television and computer screens allow drone pilots and the general public to view war ‘from a distance’ while making way for organized state violence to be seen as virtuous” (2011, p. 246). In other words, the authors and other observers contend, drone pilots are removed from the action so they do not regard their actions in war as gravely as their counterparts on the ground.
Some contend that drones exaggerate the “otherness” of those being observed, and thus trivialize the experience of warfare, resulting in what Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, famously called “a PlayStation mentality to killing” (2010). However, Gregory (2011) argues that the persistent surveillant gaze of drones, the “scopic regime” of modern U.S warfare, as he puts it, in fact creates the opposite problem; “the effortless sense of time-space compression” that characterizes the real-time networked international drone operations generates what Gregory calls “the raw intimacy of the killing space” (pp. 192 & 206). This position has been substantiated by those with direct experience in drone warfare. Drone pilots such as Swanson have vigorously defended their role, arguing that, if anything, they take their role in war even more seriously than some of their fellow soldiers, given the intimacy of drone warfare: “Mentally, the pilot is inside a Predator, though the drone is half a world away. Emotionally, he is at war” (Swanson, 2014). As another drone pilot put it, “In some ways, drone use is more human from the pilot’s perspective, which is kind of ironic” (Bergen & Rothenberg, 2015, p. 115). The problem is not that pilots don’t see enough, but rather that they see too much, the horror and tedium of war played out in front of them in exquisite digital detail. Research has shown that this creates a series of effects, from severe stress and PTSD (Chamayou & Lloyd, 2015) to a reported propensity to project attitudes about the adversary on images collected from the drone (Drew, 2010).
As drones find their way into police hands, they are likewise raising concerns among a variety of stakeholders and observers, including the academic community, who fear that just as the surveillant capacity of drones has enabled new forms of warfighting and has created new, unfamiliar challenges, the technology will have a similar effect in the law enforcement sphere. Schlag describes drones in the law enforcement context as “a powerful, inconspicuous, and autonomous surveillance tool” (Schlag, 2013, p. 15). A third of all Americans, according to Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll, are concerned that police drone use will “erode” their privacy (Lowy, 2016). Sen. Chuck Grassley contends that even though, “with drones carrying advanced technology that provide facial recognition, license plate recognition, biometric recognition, important investigative leads can be pursued rapidly . . ., the thought of Government drones buzzing overhead monitoring the activities of law-abiding citizens runs contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society” (Grassley, 2013, p. 3). Others worry that as the technology evolves and law enforcement adopts larger, more capable drones that more closely match the systems currently used by the military, police will be able to conduct persistent surveillance, which McNeal argues is “a distinct concern” (McNeal, 2016, p. 402).
The Dawn of Unmanned Flight
We are still in the early days of both advanced military drone use and the use of drones by law enforcement, so it remains to be seen how these controversies will play out. The arguments both against and in favor of drones are still being debated vigorously among stakeholders. But the present day use of drones sits on a continuum with unmanned surveillance practice stretching out over a century. The long history of unmanned aircraft therefore provides a key dimension of context to the current proliferation and use of the technology, as well as to the attendant critiques.
None of what follows is an accident of history. The values that have led to the drone revolution on both a technical and doctrinal level are as old as flight itself. The history of drones is a rich, century-long story of technological evolution marked by an unyielding dedication to the fantasy of drone flight. The first hundred years of that history is largely a history of failure. Tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars were spent on the development of unmanned aerial systems that never saw operational use. Those systems that did make it into production—some of which, like the Gyrodyne QH-50 Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter, were built in the hundreds—were insufficiently impactful to spur the wide-scale development and proliferation of unmanned systems.
This history of unmanned airborne reconnaissance necessarily includes satellites, which are, after all, unmanned aircraft of sorts. For the second half of the 20th century, U.S. satellite surveillance programs were wildly successful, unlike their lower altitude unmanned counterparts, and satellites therefore held a place of prominence in the U.S. airborne intelligence collection toolkit. The story of satellites emphasizes a critical lesson: it is the confluence of technological development and strategic needs that raises a particular technology to the top of the ecosystem. A CIA satellite that travels at 17,000 miles per hour (Dunbar, 2010) might not seem to have that much in common with a $1,200 drone that a police officer might operate at 200 feet over an illegal casino, but the two share a common history.
The Kettering Bug is often cited as the first iteration in what James R. W. Titus, Dean of Research at Air University, describes as “the problematic history of” drones (Clark, 2000, p. vii). Developed by the inventor Charles F. Kettering, in 1917, on commission for the U.S. Army Aircraft Board, the Bug looked like a miniaturized biplane. The planes were intended to be packed with explosives and then pointed in the direction of a target; once they reached the appropriate distance, after making an arrow-straight flight courtesy of the recently invented gyroscope, the engine would shut off and the vehicle would effectively turn into a bomb. It was described as an “aerial torpedo” (Stamp, 2013), a term that would later be replaced with the current term “cruise missile” (the famous German Doodlebug flying bombs operated under a similar principle) (The V-1 Flying Bomb, 2014). Around fifty Kettering Bugs were produced for the U.S. Army Air Service by the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company (Orville Wright consulted on the design of aircraft), but the war ended before the system could be deployed (Kettering Aerial Torpedo). Early footage of the Bug available on YouTube shows the Bug in a series of failed takeoffs using a complex and ungainly dolly system. Though the system performed relatively well in later tests, including a number of additional post-war trials by the Army Air Service, the project was abandoned in the early 1920s. A similar aerial torpedo unveiled in 1918, the Curtiss Sperry, did not fare much better, though its innovative gyroscopic stabilization system established the basis for stabilization system to this day (Kettering Bug Aerial Torpedo, 2013; Werrell, 1985a, p. 285).
Radio control systems, first tested successfully aboard aircraft by the U.S. Navy in 1924 (U.S. Navy, 2010), enabled operators on the ground to steer unmanned systems without the need for a physical tether. Some of the earliest remote control systems were in fact developed for target drones (Newcome, 2004, p. 47), which have themselves had a long, colorful, and ongoing history that has cross pollinated often with the development of drones in the modern sense of the word. The potential of such systems for surveillance and attack missions was apparent from the outset. Progress on remote control systems for drones was swift, and by 1942, the U.S. Navy had developed a strikingly modern system, the TDR-1.
The TDR-1, designed to serve as an aerial torpedo like the Bug, incorporated many innovative features, some of which are similar to those we see on drones today. Remarkably, the drone could be operated by a crew flying in a manned aircraft. First, a crew on the ground would remotely control the aircraft’s takeoff before handing control to the crew in the manned airplane (a similar concept is employed by Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk crews today: one team, stationed at the airfield where the aircraft is located, launches the drone before passing control to a second team located within the United States) This remote flight setup was enabled by the TDR-1’s most transformative feature: its highly classified video transmission system, designed and developed by the Radio Corporation of America under the code name BLOCK.
The BLOCK system consisted of a large, bulky box that would receive a live transmission from the aircraft’s nose-mounted cameras (RCA’s Television Activity During World War Two, 1968). These images would be displayed in monochrome on a screen only slightly larger than a modern iPhone. The device was ungainly (it weighed nearly 100 pounds) and the transmission was of very low quality (Everett & Toscano, 2015, pp. 309, 324). But it was good enough to enable test operators to steer the drone into a target from a distance of 30 miles (RCA’s Television Activity During World War Two, 1968). The TDR-1 was deployed by the Navy to the Pacific, and was used in just over 50 missions—22 of which are thought to have been successful—before the program was cancelled. Though impressive, the TDR-1 was unable to match the precision and effectiveness of manned attack aircraft, and it did not see further use. The BLOCK device was also employed for the infamous Aphrodite project, which sought to retool old B-17 bombers as explosive-laden cruise missiles (Magoun, 2007, p. 83).
BLOCK transmission systems were also used successfully aboard drones that were flown over the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll during Operation Crossroads in 1946. The aircraft—converted manned B-17s and F6F Hellcats—were ideal for collecting data on the tests without putting human pilots in danger (Gettinger, 2016). “The use of drones is expected to uncover facts of the radioactive phenomena as well as supply data on blast effects on airborne aircraft,” a Navy Admiral told the New York Times (“Drones” Will Dive Into Atomic Blast,” 1946). The potential of unmanned aircraft as demonstrated by these tests impelled the Times to declare, in another article, that drones would likely soon become a “familiar sight in the skyways of the world” (Baldwin, 1946).
As the conflict in Europe wound down, the Navy’s interest in live video transmission systems seems to have waned, and RCA, which had partnered with NBC on the program, sought to pivot the technology toward civil and commercial applications. A 1946 press release announcing the initiative declared
It is foreseen as opening the way for revolutionary television news coverage from cars, boats, planes, and helicopters; replacing test pilots in experimental planes of supersonic speeds; television sight for experimental plane or marine navigation; serving as “eyes” in factories to control activities from a distance and watch processes which might be inaccessible or too dangerous to man.
(Radio Corporation of America, 1946)
The company emphasized that a core element of the value proposition of a live transmission system was that it would enable aircraft to be flown unmanned (Sharpe, 2007). This two-pronged assertion—that there are good reasons, such as safety, to pull the pilot out of the equation, and that a video transmission system is vital for drones to be operable at any significant distance—remains the operative principle in drone use today. A second proposition, that a real-time view of events from above was useful, required little justification. Militaries had long been developing systems for delivering information from the sky to the ground in real time (for example, when aerial observers in balloons would make hand signals to the ground describing enemy positions, or drop notes and diagrams attached to weights). In the years immediately following the Second World War, the company described how its video transmission system might provide audiences on the ground with real-time coverage of emergency events (Zurhorst, 1946, p. 17). “SCENES PICKED UP BY AIRBORNE TELEVISION SYSTEM ARE TRANSMITTED INSTANTANEOUSLY IN ANY DIRECTION TO REMOTE RECEPTION CENTERS” announces one magazine illustration showing a camera-equipped airplane orbiting a war-zone (Zurhorst, 1946, p. 17). The use of the system for “television news coverage” proved to be a particularly prescient proposition. RCA continued to develop live video transmission systems and sophisticated cameras, which eventually gave rise to the news television helicopters that have been in use for decades (and which will soon be largely replaced by drones).
Though it was an obvious and appealing proposition, the military equivalent of live aerial television coverage—aerial reconnaissance—did not immediately take hold as the principal application of unmanned aircraft. A second RCA system developed for the Navy, Project RING, which sought to produce a transmission system for high altitude airplanes, also disappeared from the history books (Goldsmith, Van Dyck, Burnap, Dickey, & Baker, 1947, p. 369). This is odd, given that militaries and inventors had been pursuing unmanned aerial photography since as early as the second half of the 19th century, using unmanned balloons and kites equipped with photographic devices (Hannavy, 2008, p. 12). The drone promised something even better: a steerable aerial system that, being untethered, could travel over enemy territory to capture photographs without needing to endanger a human pilot. Some limited experimental projects had tested the proposition unmanned heavier than air reconnaissance systems (Everett & Toscano, 2015, p. 303), but it was not until the 1960s that unmanned aerial reconnaissance systems entered widespread use.
The Cold War
Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, the major U.S. aerial reconnaissance projects—the U.S. Air Force and CIA’s manned spy planes, the numerous Air Force drone programs of the period, and National Reconnaissance Office’s satellite campaign—were all driven by the same strategic impulse, which was established by CIA Director Allan Dulles in a 1954 memo: the need to collect intelligence within the increasingly defended airspace of the Soviet Union without risking the lives of U.S. soldiers. The famous U-2 Dragonlady spy plane, which was designed to fly beyond the reach of Soviet air defenses, was the first major project to be completed in this vein. After a U-2 was shot down in May 1960, the use of manned aircraft for reconnaissance of the Soviet Union became much less viable (Ruffner, 1995, p. 41), and the Air Force and intelligence communities began to direct more attention to satellites and drones.
The basic instinct driving the development of drones and satellites in this period was that they required no humans to be placed at risk. This impulse is very different from the impulse that has driven the popularity of unmanned technology in the wars of the last 20 years, which have largely been defined by a conflict against individuals in areas where no air defenses exist and where drones can therefore be used to the full extent of their endurance to collect full motion video imagery that is used to develop a detailed pattern of life portrait of targets (Haider, 2014, p. 1).
The typical model for airborne reconnaissance in the Cold War was to get in, get the photographs, then get out as quickly as possible. During the entire Cold War, the imagery collected by airborne and space-based platforms consisted almost exclusively of still photography. Satellites will only “hit” their target once per orbit, the duration of which depends on the altitude of the satellite. Satellites therefore did not provide the kind of “unblinking” view of the adversary. Video imagery collection did not become the norm until the early 2000s (Cooter, 2007, p. 11). Though video surveillance might seem to be preferable to still photography, there was little strategic need for it. The highest value targets in the Cold War were not humans, but rather military installations, anti aircraft defenses, tanks, and large-scale troop mobilizations. In many cases, getting an eye on the target once every couple of hours may be perfectly acceptable. Though a satellite only returned to an intercontinental ballistic missile installation every 90 minutes, that was still sufficient to track construction or major mobilizations.
As Thomas Ehrhard put it in a lecture at the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, “The requirement for loitering that we see so prominent today was not really an issue” (Ehrhard, 2010). The actual monitoring of missile launches and nuclear weapons tests, which did require an “unblinking” watch, was achieved with non-imagery-based surveillance.
Satellites were the dominant tool of U.S. aerial intelligence gathering for the entire second half of the 20th century. The same benefits proffered by “going unmanned”—no need for life-sustaining equipment, no theoretical limit to the duration of the mission, and the ability to fly potentially risky flights with unproven technologies without having to risk any human lives—apply equally in the troposphere and the exosphere. The satellite, first proposed as a viable tool for “observation” in a RAND study for the Air Force in 1946, promised to provide the ultimate stare (“Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship”).
The CIA’s remarkable satellite program has been widely covered in a number of detailed books, essays, and declassified documents. Much of this attention focused on the famous CORONA satellites that served as the anchor for U.S. intelligence on the Soviet Union. Famously, CORONA imagery played a central role in the Cuban missile crisis, and served to put to rest fears among policymakers in Washington that the Soviet Union had built a significant lead in its stockpile of intercontinental ballistic missiles compared to the U.S (Bird & Bird, 2011, p. 11).
The CORONA satellites did not provide real-time intelligence as proposed by RCA. The CORONA’s system for delivering intelligence to the ground was essentially a hi-tech version of the note-dropping system employed by balloonists in the 19th century. The satellite, having completed the required number of orbits, would drop a large metal tub full of thousands of feet of negative reel back down through the atmosphere (Waltrop, 2014, p. 20). At 20,000 feet, once the tub’s parachute had deployed, an Air Force cargo plane would swoop by and retrieve the package using a hook and pulley system not dissimilar from the one used by Batman in The Dark Knight (Mulcahy, 2012, p. 157). After being rushed back to the mainland, CIA photo interpreters at the National Photo Interpretation Center (NPIC) would receive the photographs at their office in Washington, DC within less than a day of the “drop.”
This decidedly complex and tedious arrangement was failure-prone and risky. Many buckets were lost during re-entry, and one bucket even landed in Venezuela, where it was discovered by several curious farmers (Oder, Fitzpatrick, & Worthman, 1988, pp. 96–98). It represented a far cry from the instantaneous real-time intelligence generated by drones today. The U.S government had been interested in real-time intelligence since the dawn of the satellite era. A program known as SAMOS, which was initially an Air Force initiative, proposed a transmission system that was far more elegant and direct than the buckets used on CORONA. Essentially, the satellite would scan the images onboard soon after they were exposed and beam them down as signals to a ground station in the continental United States. Though the technical components necessary to make this happen all already existed, the sophisticated concept is impressive even today:
The exposed negative film, converged with the gelatin-coated SO-111 Bimat film, was developed in a semi-dry chemical process, and then was scanned by a Columbia Broadcasting System flying spot line-scanner that consisted of a cathode-ray tube and a rotating anode having a high intensity spot of light. A photomultiplier converted the light passing from the scanner through the film into an electrical signal whose strength varied with the density of the emulsion layer of the film. The images were then radioed to Earth as frequency-modulated analog signals, to be assembled much in the manner of a wire photo, each image built up in swaths.
(Hall, 2001, p. 2)
A prototype SAMOS was launched in 1960, shortly after President Eisenhower transitioned the initiative from the Air Force to CIA. The test immediately revealed that the technology still wasn’t up to the task of a true real-time transmission. Because the ground station needed to be in line of sight of the satellite to receive the signal, the satellite could only transmit its images once it was over the continental United States. This meant that there was only a window of a few minutes to download the images before the satellite disappeared from view, nowhere near enough time to download all the data from orbit, and the images were not retrievable once a transmission had been attempted, so a portion of the imagery from each orbit was lost every time (Hall, 2001, p. 3).
Following the poor performance in the test, the CIA—which was by then deeply invested in its in-house CORONA program—cancelled SAMOS and abandoned the idea of real-time aerial intelligence for the time being. Curiously, just like the RCA transmission system, after being abandoned SAMOS’ innovative proposition found a receptive home in the civilian world. The technology was secretly transferred in 1963 to NASA (Perry, 1973, pp. 170–174), where it was used aboard five of the lunar orbiters that were launched in 1966 and 1967 (Hall, 2001, p. 3).
The CIA did finally achieve real-time intelligence collection with the KH-11, first launched in 1976 (United States National Reconnaissance Office, 2011). With the advent of real-time imagery, analysts no longer had to wait for the satellite to finish its mission, which might last days or weeks, to access the images (Ruffner, 1995, p. 32). This proved to be especially useful in urgent situations such as the Chernobyl disaster (O’Connor, 2015, p. 8).
The principal drawback of the early satellites that orbited approximately 100 miles above the surface of the Earth (Ruffner, 1995, p. 19) was the low quality of the images they produced compared to the U-2, which flew at 60,000 feet (Dupré, 2011, p. 62). Meanwhile, the principal drawback of the U-2 and, later, the CIA’s A-12 and its Air Force variant, the famous SR-71 Blackbird, was that they were manned: the political costs of another shoot-down might well outweigh the potential payoff of a higher resolution image. This meant that a niche existed for drones, which could potentially capture high-quality images like a manned aircraft without the risk of losing a pilot and potentially sparking another diplomatic crisis. According to Barry Miller in a 1970 story for Aviation Week on the growing use of drones,
The Cuban missile crisis proved to be the final catalyst for an all-out drone reconnaissance effort. Shortly after an Air Force U-2 was shot down on a mission over the Caribbean island, killing its pilot Maj. Rudolf Anderson, Jr., the government was stunned to learn that while an unmanned aircraft might have done the same job, only two drone reconnaissance aircraft were available in U.S. military inventory. At that point, drone reconnaissance development won presidential backing and needed funding.
(Miller, 1970, p. 49)
Since drones could be much smaller than manned aircraft and did not require any life-support equipment, they also promised to be much cheaper than manned alternatives. “At a fraction of the cost of modern high-performance reconnaissance aircraft,” wrote Miller “these small, remotely controlled vehicles time and again are able to return high-quality photographic imagery of hostile areas without risking lives of pilots or crew” (Miller, p. 46).
But the efforts to fill this niche yielded some of the most spectacular and costly failures in the history of unmanned technology. Between 1954 and 1992, the U.S. government embarked on 14 major drone development programs, defined as programs valued at more than $50 million in FY01 dollars. Of these, only two produced aircraft that were used extensively. The total cost of the 12 failed programs was nearly $15 billion in 2016 dollars (Ehrhard & Grant, 2010). But they also produced capabilities and concepts of operations that significantly advanced the field of unmanned aerial intelligence collection.
The many varied and at times bizarre drones of the Cold War were designed to produce intelligence in a way that mirrored manned spy planes and satellites: the aircraft would fly over a target, collect images, and return. None of these drones collected full motion video.The most successful drones of the Cold War period were produced by a company called Ryan Aeronautical, which had established itself as a global leader in unmanned aviation with its popular Fire Bee target drones (Singh, 1985, p. 198). The company’s first serious effort to develop a drone that could “compete” with manned aircraft and satellites, as Thomas Ehrhard puts it in his commanding “Air Force UAV’s: The Secret History,” was project Red Wagon (Ehrhard, 2010, p. 6). This initiative, which sought to develop a high-altitude spy drone with similar capabilities to the U-2, should have served as an early warning that sophisticated drones were not necessarily much cheaper than manned aircraft. The initial budget for Red Wagon, signed in 1960, was $70 million (Piehler & Johnson, 2013, p. 1501). That was just $16 million less than the CIA’s concurrent project, Oxcart, which was set to produce a manned airplane capable of flying three times the speed of sound, faster than any anti-aircraft missile. The program was cancelled before the contract was even signed (Cooke, Rowe, Bennett, & Joralmon, 2016).
But in 1962, Ryan’s drone concept was picked up again. The idea now was to simply retool the Ryan Firebee as a reconnaissance drone. Fast, simple, cheap, and relatively expendable, Ryan’s target drones seemed like a promising reconnaissance platform. The Navy had already bought thousands of these systems, and they performed well (Piehler & Johnson, 2013, p. 1501). The initiative was handed to Big Safari, a secretive Air Force unit that develops specialized intelligence collection aircraft, usually for one-off covert missions. It took 91 days and $1 million for Big Safari to produce a minimally modified camera-equipped drone that was capable of capturing high-resolution imagery from 55,000 feet (Goebel, 2003) while travelling at 435 miles per hour. The drone was renamed Fire Fly (Trenear-Harvey, 2009, p. 162).
Within two years, the Fire Fly was deployed to conduct reconnaissance missions over China. Soon enough, the Chinese military caught on to the overflights and turned their anti-aircraft systems on the mysterious unmanned jets crisscrossing its skies. In the first few months of operations, the PLA brought down five of the drones, three of which it paraded in April of 1965 (Goebel, 2003). The images of charred U.S. aircraft in the hands of a communist regime were certainly embarrassing, but far less painful than the footage of Francis Gary Powers on trial. As Laurence Newcome puts it in Unmanned Aviation: A Brief History of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, “it was essentially a one-day story in Western newspapers” (Newcome, 2004, p. 85).
They were used to photograph enemy positions and collect other sources of intelligence in heavily fortified territory. Like the buckets dropped from CORONA satellites, Lightning Bugs—as the Fire Fly had been renamed—were retrieved mid-air. The success of the initial drone inspired the development of a remarkable menagerie of 23 variants that served in different roles such as low-altitude reconnaissance and even signals intelligence collection for the National Security Administration. Some of the Signals Intelligence Lightning Bugs did have a real-time intelligence transmission capability, but it was used for signals intelligence rather than the real time imagery transmission that sets today’s drones apart from those of previous decades (Kovacs, Halloran, Graham, Stratton, Dale, J., & Bailey, 2000). Approximately 3,450 Lightning Bug sorties were conducted over Southeast Asia, making it by far the most prolific reconnaissance drone of the Cold War (Newcome, 2004, p. 83).
The most outrageous drone to ever make it to the field was the D-21. Initiated in 1962, the same year that Big Safari modified the Fire Bee, and codenamed TAGBOARD by the CIA, it still looks futuristic today. The system was essentially a single 43 foot-long ramjet engine with wings. The drone itself would self-destruct after completing its flight. Developed by Lockheed Martin, the Tagboard was intended to provide the same benefits of the supersonic A-12/SR-71 without the need for a human pilot onboard. Planners hoped that it could be used to penetrate deeply into Chinese airspace at an altitude of 90,000 feet and outrun the anti-aircraft defenses that the PLA used to bring down the Fire Flies in 1964. An official CIA history describes how it worked:
The drones would be launched well away from targets, fly their missions, and return to a preprogrammed location in international waters. There they would jettison a payload that a C-130 would snag in midair, and then self-destruct with a barometrically activated explosive device.
One official described it in a 1966 memo as “an unusual configuration, to say the least”([Redacted] Assistant for programs, 1966).
TAGBOARD was a spectacular failure. The only aircraft fast enough to launch the Tagboard was the A-12 spy plane (CIA, 2007). The technical challenges associated with launching an unstable, unsteerable unmanned aircraft from the back of a complex and delicate spy plane at three times the speed of sound were significant. During a test launch in 1966, a D-21 slammed into the parent plane shortly after separation, resulting in the death of one of the pilots and the loss of both airframes (Parangosky, 1967).
Undeterred, the NRO, which had assumed control of the program, pressed on and deployed the D-21, in 1969, to a location near Hainan. The operational flights were no more successful than the tests. A Top Secret memo that was declassified in 2003 describes the many failed missions of the program (TAGBOARD Missions, 1970). After several costly losses—each mission reportedly cost in excess of $5.5 million, a staggering sum at the time—Tagboard was cancelled in 1971 (Merlin, n.d.).
Tagboard was not the only expensive drone venture being pursued in the 1960s. A parallel effort to develop a stealthy, high-speed, high-altitude drone based on the Ryan reconnaissance drones, code named Compass Arrow, was just as unsuccessful (“Teledyne AQM-91A”). A total of 28 aircraft were produced, despite the objections of officials who did not support the program ([Redacted] 1968) before it was cancelled in 1972. Aviation Week’s Bill Sweetman calculated that each aircraft cost $350 million, more than the most expensive jet fighter ever produced, the F-35.
The Age of Loitering
It is to the second half of the Cold War that we can trace the origins of the concept of the surveillance drone as we know it and use it today. By this time, the “fixed” targets of the early Cold War had become more mobile—the Soviet Union had movable air defense systems and nuclear missile launchers that could be set up and relocated in short turnaround, making them difficult to track by satellites (RT-2PM - SS-25 SICKLE). The blinking view that satellites provided was losing its appeal. Drones were seen as a possible solution.
The first high-level attempt to develop a viable surveillance drone that could “loiter” was the Compass Cope program (Conference Report), which began around 1970 and produced two costly prototypes (GlobalSecurity.org). The following two decades saw a number of impressive high altitude drone programs that nevertheless failed to produce a deployed system. One such drone was the Advanced Airborne Reconnaissance System. If there is one drone that reflects the high ambitions of the U.S. government to achieve a loitering drone “stare,” it is the still-classified AARS. This almost mythical aircraft is described by Ehrhard as “one of the grandest UAV conceptions ever.” The maturation of advanced technologies such as stealth and satellite communications, writes Ehrhard, “pointed toward the possibility of a UAV that could loiter so long, so high, and with such impunity that it would serve as an endo-atmospheric, geo-stationary satellite.” In other words, planners figured that a drone, if it were able to stealthily avoid anti-aircraft defenses, might be able to give that unblinking view of events on the ground, compared to the “episodic coverage,” as Ehrhard puts it, provided by satellites and spy planes (Ehrhard, 2010, p. 13).
The AARS program officially began in 1983 under contract with Boeing and Lockheed Martin (Sweetman, 2012). To evade detection, it employed stealth technology. To maximize endurance, some initial concepts proposed a wingspan in excess of 250 feet. All this ambition translated into an enormously expensive design. The program was cancelled in 1991 (Boatman, 1994, pp. 1, 3) and the full story of the classified program has yet to be told (Fulghum & Wall, 2000).
In the early 1990s, the AARS concept was reconfigured into several high-altitude long endurance drone programs organized (Butler & Sweetman, 2013, p. 23). Tier III, the most ambitious of the systems, had the same performance requirements as the AARS; like the AARS, it remains classified. A more conservative high-altitude system, designated Tier III Minus, was the Boeing DarkStar (Gehrs-Pahl, 1995), a futuristic flying wing drone that is thought by many to incorporate elements of the AARS (Butler & Sweetman, 2013, p. 23). DarkStar was regarded by the military as a highly promising initiative—an Air Force “Concept of Operations” document from 1996 plans for a future in which the DarkStar loiters over enemy territory for extended periods (Lamb & Stone, 1996). But a prototype crashed in testing in April 1996, and in 1999, the DarkStar program was terminated (RQ-3A DarkStar, 1999). Another proposed drone, the Tier II+ system, developed by Teledyne Ryan—the same company that had made the Lightning Bug—was intended to have an endurance of 24 hours and a range of 3,000 nautical miles (Teledyne Wins Tier II Plus, 1995).
The Tier II+ program became the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk (Pike “RQ-4A Global Hawk”). Of the drones that maintain a direct lineage with the high-altitude long-endurance ambitious initiatives of the Cold War, only the Global Hawk, now produced by Northrop Grumman (which bought Teledyne) survived into production. Even though the Global Hawk has gone on to become a successful program and a key component in the airborne intelligence ecosystem, it will not go down in history as the drone that brought about the ISR revolution and inspired countless books, films, police departments, and academics.
In fact, the drone that finally scratched the Pentagon’s newfound itch for persistence and brought about the real revolution—the now famous Predator—drew from a technical lineage very far removed from the U.S. reconnaissance ventures of the Cold War. The Predator originated not as a large order multi-service initiative to spy on the Soviet Union, but rather as an unassuming in-house business project by the Israeli aerospace engineer Abe Karem.
A former employee of Israel Aerospace Industries, Karem drew from a different technical lineage, a lineage that has, for the time being at least, won the day (Whittle, 2014, p. 12). Beginning in the 1960s, Israel also recognized the potential benefits of a persistent unmanned surveillance system (Newcome, 2004, p. 93), but it took an entirely different approach. In the late 1960s, Israel acquired various Fire Bee drones that had been modified, like the Fire Fly, for reconnaissance (Singh, 1985, p. 198). In the 1970s, Alvin Ellis, an American engineer living in Israel, began developing, along with a colleague from his former employer, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), a video camera equipped drone that more resembled a model airplane than a piece of military hardware (Sander, 2002–2003, pp. 114–115). The Israeli technology firm Tadiran purchased the design, which became the Mastiff. The Israel Defense Force was soon flying Mastiffs, along with its successor the Scout, to spy on enemy positions. Rather than capture high-resolution still images, the drones had video cameras that could capture movement and track individuals. By 1986, Israel’s use of inexpensive surveillance drones had been so successful that it inspired a CIA report that predicted the widespread adoption of the technology by Third World countries inspired by the Israeli model of unmanned spy flight ([Redacted], 1986). Israel has used drones in every major conflict it has engaged in since the deployment of the Mastiff, and has become a global leader in the drone export market (The Global UAV Market 2015–2025, 2015, p. 169).
When Abe Karem—an engineer and model aircraft enthusiast who had worked for IAI on its unmanned systems in the 1970s—migrated to the United States in 1977, he brought the Israeli concept of drone warfare with him. An avid radio-controlled plane hobbyist, he recognized that a great deal could be accomplished with a small, light unmanned airframe (Whittle, 2013). By the mid-1980s, the U.S. Army’s ongoing effort to develop a drone in part modeled on the Israeli concept (Bloomfield, 2013), the Aquila, was running over budget and performing poorly in tests—it was cancelled in 1987 (Smith, 2000, p. 11). Karem designed a drone that essentially had the form of a motorized glider. It was mechanically simple and very slow, but it had incredible endurance. In 1987, Karem sold his design to General Atomics, which managed to court the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency with the idea that persistence could be achieved at a low cost (The Dronefather, 2012), a rather radical departure from the thinking that drove the sleek and expensive AARS program and the subsequent Tier III and Tier II+ programs (which were managed by DARPA, among various other DoD organizations). Unlike the proposed high-altitude Tier programs, Karem’s airplane—which went through various iterations before being christened with its famous moniker Predator—could not evade enemy air defenses. But that was no longer necessary. The Soviet Union had fallen, largely eliminating the need for stealthy, high-speed aircraft. Instead, the United States was interested in pursuing an individual, Osama Bin Laden, whose attacks and the ensuing military response would come to define the post-Cold-War era of U.S. warfare. The rest of the Predator’s history, including the development of the Remote Split Operations system that enables the aircraft to be piloted from the U.S., as well as its role in establishing the current prevailing airborne intelligence collection paradigm, is well documented (Holland Michel, 2016; Whittle, 2014).
The Predator’s chief appeal was its ability to keep an eye on a target for many hours at a time, recording everything it saw, just like the Israeli systems, on video. The idea was not to produce high-level strategic reconnaissance, but rather low-level tactical surveillance. Reconnaissance is the ability to capture information about a target at a single point in time. Surveillance is the practice of watching a target persistently and systematically (United States Army, 2007). For instance, a cavalry unit deployed ahead of an army to locate and count the enemy force would be practicing reconnaissance. A detective who sits in a car outside a suspect’s house for days or weeks recording every movement would be conducting surveillance.
As opposed to producing still photographs of immobile strategic targets like earlier U.S. drones or the current-day Global Hawk, Predator produced full motion video of dynamic targets such as individuals or vehicles. The idea of persistent airborne video surveillance quickly gained broad interest and support. A 1998 report prepared by the Congressional Budget Office describes the appeal of persistent drones.
They hold great promise. Military thinkers who contend that warfare is becoming more information-based believe that UAVs can play a key role by providing their users with sustained, nearly instantaneous video and radar images of an area without putting human lives at risk.
(Labs & Christman, 1998)
This is precisely what is drawing law enforcement to drone technology today, and now that police are adopting this technology, the history of military drones is the history of police drones, too. As law enforcement agencies increasingly turn to this technology, and as the use of drones in law enforcement follows a path that mimics the course of military drone use, the technology will likely have an effect similar to what it has had in the military sphere, driving operational doctrine and new capabilities that in turn transform tactics.
Hundreds of police departments around the world now operate drones. Within the next two to three years, there will likely be thousands of police departments with drones. And yet the present day adoption of drone technology by law enforcement agencies still only represents the very beginning of what will likely be a very long chapter in the history of unmanned aircraft. The drones used by police today are small, cheap, and not particularly capable. Driven by the Stare Constant, law enforcement groups will continue to expand their use of these systems, and in the coming years, police will likely begin to use larger, more capable drones that are more similar to a Predator than to a consumer quadcopter. Just as the surveillance technology used aboard drones has advanced dramatically in the military sphere in recent decades, these future police drones will continue to be equipped with larger, more powerful surveillance systems that collect vast quantities of data.
The use of this technology by law enforcement will continue to raise numerous ethical, legal, and policy issues, particularly around privacy and civil rights. The use of drones by police is already spurring vigorous debates among stakeholders, and as the use of drones by police spreads, and as the tactics and the drones themselves become more sophisticated, this debate will become more complex and more urgent. In discussions of how police drones should be used, and how they shouldn’t, it is imperative that we know the technology’s history, as it offers strong clues as to what we can expect next, and guidance as to how we might get ahead of potential future issues. Kettering Bugs, Cold War satellites, supersonic drones, and Predators might seem far removed from the rural Sheriff’s office buying a small cheap quadcopter drone. But it is all part of the same story.
Review of Literature and Primary Sources
The last five years have seen a significant spike in scholarly output in the social sciences on the subject of drones. A significant portion of this work has focused on military drone use, in particular the use of drones in the U.S. targeted killing campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Bergen and Rothernberg’s Drone Wars: Transforming Conflict, Law, and Policy (2015) provides a useful selection of essays that represent the various tracks of scholarship and theory that have so far predominated in the drone studies field, particularly with regards to military drones. Woods’ Sudden Justice: The True Cost of America’s Secret Drone War (2014) and Shane’s Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone (2015) are both useful, thoroughly sourced monographs on the CIA’s role in the targeted killing campaign. Scholarly works on the military use of drones have tended to focus on issues of transparency, international humanitarian law, laws of armed conflict, and counterterrorism strategy at large, but A Theory of the Drone (Chamayou & Lloyd, 2015) offers a critical metaphysical take on the drone as an embodiment of “pre-modern war.” Singer’s Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (2009) was among the first major works to define the “drone revolution” and establish the various policy issues that would arise from the use of unmanned systems technology in conflict, and is therefore crucial reading for anybody who is new to the subject.
A second track of scholarship has focused on the technical and historical facets of the rise of military drones. Whittle ‘s Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution (2014) provides an imperative history of the U.S. Air Force’s Predator, arguably the most important drone in history to date. Everett and Toscano’s Unmanned Systems of World Wars I and II (2015) is a meticulous history of the often overlooked, but very significant early years of military drone development. Ehrhard’s Air Force UAVs: The Secret History (2010) is a singularly authoritative account of the U.S. Air Force’s many drone development programs over the course of the 20th century. Kevin Ruffner’s Corona: America’s First Satellite Program is the authoritative account of CIA’s CORONA spy satellite program. Jeffrey Richelson’s The Wizards of Langley also devotes significant space to the intelligence community’s airborne reconnaissance programs. The Central Intelligence Agency and National Reconnaissance Office websites contain a trove of recently declassified memos, histories, and essays on U.S. airborne reconnaissance programs, particularly satellite programs. The Federation of American Scientists website provides an extensive collection of primary sources including military documents, datasheets, slide shows, and congressional reports.
A smaller volume of scholarly work is available on the non-military use of drones, which is a more recent phenomenon. Carey’s Enter the Drones: The FAA and UAVs in America (2015) is a thorough history of the ongoing efforts to fully integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system. The Federal Aviation Administration and NASA websites offer a selection of helpful primary sources on this subject, including policy guidance documents, fact sheets, technical papers, and federal regulations.
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