Drones in Fact and Fiction

01.26.15 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The emergence of unmanned aerial systems, or drones, as an instrument of war is often referred to as a “revolutionary” development in military technology. Thus, a new history of the subject is entitled “Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution” by Richard Whittle (Henry Holt, 2014).

But if it is a revolution, it is more like a turning of a wheel that will continue to revolve rather than the permanent transformation of all that has come before it. Armed drones represent an innovative response to a particular threat, but they are themselves bound to inspire other innovations and reactions from adversaries.

The development of drones as an ongoing process of adaption and response is the animating idea behind “Sting of the Drone,” a thriller by former National Security Council official Richard A. Clarke (who was a leading advocate for arming drones in the Clinton and Bush Administrations).

“This is not a static environment,” says a character in the novel named Dugout. “It’s more like classic two-player game theory. We each learn about the other’s behavior and adjust.”

In the novel, the terrorist targets of U.S. drone attacks adjust by deciding to attack the individual drone operators, who believe — mistakenly, as it turns out — that they are far removed from the battlefield.

One of the least believable features of Clarke’s novel, which is perfectly readable by the standards of airport fiction, is the character of Dugout, a super-skilled hacker and what-not who can accomplish technological feats that are beyond the imagination of his hidebound, boringly conventional colleagues.

So it comes as a surprise to read in Richard Whittle’s history that there was in fact at least one such real-life character associated with the weaponization of U.S. drones, who is identified only as “Werner” (“not because he is a covert operative, for he never was, but because he prefers to remain anonymous”). Werner, an imagery scientist and all-purpose technologist, was able to swiftly conceive and implement solutions to problems that left others completely stumped.

The Whittle history is an impressive tale of aeronautical innovation, led in its early years by Israeli expatriate Abraham Karem, that would encounter technological obstacles, bureaucratic resistance, and policy barriers. The ensuing struggles are rendered more lively and interesting by the author than might have been expected. Is an armed drone equivalent to a ground-launched cruise missile barred by the INF Treaty? Is targeted killing precluded by the ban on assassination? Under what conditions can or should a drone’s weapons be fired by the CIA?

Eventually, as Whittle recounts, all of these obstacles were overcome, at least for the moment. (In an echo of the last issue, a bill was introduced in the House just last week by Rep. Michael C. Burgess [R-TX] “to prohibit the Central Intelligence Agency from using an unmanned aerial vehicle to carry out a weapons strike or other deliberately lethal action.”)

One thing that “the drone revolution” did not do was to establish a pause in the continuing process of technological adaptation and the development of countermeasures.

To the contrary, the U.S. Army recently developed a mobile High Energy Laser that it can use against an adversary’s Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), and told Congress it will demonstrate a Counter-UAS capability in 2017.

At a March 2014 hearing, the U.S. Navy noted that it is developing its own Laser Weapon System to defeat drones.

“We feel energy weapons, specifically directed energy weapons, offer the Navy and the Marine Corps game-changing capabilities in speed-of-light engagement, deep magazines, multi-mission functionality, and affordable solutions.”

“They are capable in defeating adversarial threats, including fast boats, UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and other low-cost, widely available weapons.”