The Changing Game of Drones

Lauren Baldock-Wood

On September 11th, 2001, two massive commercial airplanes were flown into the immense Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York. A third plane then crashed into the Pentagon, Virginia, followed by the fourth hitting a field in Pennsylvania. The result was a fiery explosion of smoke and debris, costing 2,977 human lives.  This series of events involved a number of hijackers seizing standard planes and steering them directly into disaster. In order to take charge against this act of terrorism and eliminate the source completely, a new form of technology was created: drones.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as UAVs, were conceptualized in the United States long before the attacks of 9/11. According to Richard Whittle, author of “The Man Who Invented the Predator,” “The U.S. military had experimented with pilotless airplanes as ‘aerial torpedoes’ or flying bombs as far back as the first world war, but with no great success… Meanwhile, the CIA and the then-secret National Reconnaissance Office attempted to develop high-altitude, supersonic spy drones to overfly the Soviet Union and China. The efforts were too ambitious, though, for available technology.” Not-shockingly, devices that could be flown unpiloted in order to save human lives were strongly desired in the 1910’s, but this was before traffic lights had even been invented. Technology simply wasn’t there yet. The U.S. military continued to struggle with this goal until the 1980’s, when engineer Abraham Karem began his UAV work at the Pentagon.

Karem moved from Israel to the United States in 1977, where he then founded his own company. Called Leading Systems, Karem’s business existed entirely in a single garage relying on materials such as plywood, fiberglass, and a go-kart engine. With these resources, he successfully built his own drone and named it the Albatross. Karem had held an interest in aeronautics since he was a child, making complex model airplanes in school, but only now had he constructed the real machine. Karem’s passion for aircraft as well as the success of the Albatross are what eventually landed him an official position in aerospace engineering for the U.S. government.

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The United States Department of Defense had been attempting to build successful drones since their previous efforts in the early 1900’s. This included the highly classified Eagle program, in which wooden propellers and small rockets were attached to kit airplanes, resulting in little triumph. Now, however, they had Karem. Throughout the 1980’s, Karem worked with a team of engineers to develop UAVs such as the Amber and the Gnat 750. These drones were used primarily as experiments, designed to test the full potential of flying, unmanned vehicles. Yet, as soon as they proved to be successful, a bigger, better, faster member was created. Strong, sturdy, and weather-resistant, the Predator appeared the perfect fit for military operations. And it was.

Initially, Karem had begun developing these devices in order to improve practicality on behalf of U.S. armed forces. As he stated, “I was not the guy who put missiles on the Predator. I just wanted UAVs to perform to the same standards of safety, reliability and performance as manned aircraft.” The Pentagon, on the other hand, had been holding onto a different plan since World War I. They had been searching for a method of eliminating threats without putting American soldiers at risk for decades. Thus, they found every reason to work their strategies into effect once the attacks took place on September 11th.

The CIA immediately set its target on Al-Qaeda, an Islamic militant organization formerly run by Osama bin Laden. This group has conducted several terrorist strikes against the United States within an overall attempt to end the threat of U.S. superiority over Muslims, the most infamous being the horrific attacks on 9/11. As a result of this violent act, the U.S. entered a state of full retaliation. Al-Qaeda’s forces in Afghanistan were tracked down just weeks after and American troops were sent in to conquer those who orchestrated the assault. This involved pulling out the big guns. Predator No. 3034 was hence shot into the warzone, where it deployed the first Hellfire missile ever to be launched into combat by an unmanned aerial vehicle.

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The U.S. continued making attempts at destroying al-Qaeda forces with the assistance of their new technology. This was the beginning of the War on Terror. In attempts to kill its most influential people who were hiding among remote, tribal locations, drones were sent in to scout. According to Griffe Witte of The Washington Post, “This reality prompted the United States to begin targeting insurgent leaders who lived in Pakistan with missiles fired from remotely piloted drones… The United States repeatedly threatened to expand its drone strikes beyond Pakistan’s tribal areas and into regions such as Balochistān if Pakistan did not demonstrate greater cooperation in battling the Taliban, a group it had long fostered.”

Predator No. 3034 symbolized the first UAV attack, but certainly not the last. As an ill-considered consequence of September 11th, a war had begun between the United States and Iraq under President George W. Bush’s administration. A war that has not ended. To this day, the United States is maintaining troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and drones have remained a heavily used asset throughout this time. In 2002, an al-Qaeda operative believed to be responsible for the USS Cole bombing in 2000 was taken out by a Predator. Leading militant of the Taliban Baitullah Mehsud was killed by drone in 2009, and Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, head of the Taliban, was struck in 2016. These are just some instances in which drones have been used to easily and effectively terminate U.S. targets since their creation.  

Due to the United States’ heightened conviction of threat resulting from September 11th, UAV technology has continued to develop as well. Drones have been constructed in numerous different sizes in order to handle each unique task. The PD-100 Black Hornet 2, for example, is smaller than a human fist. This model is designed to be stealthy and easily accessible in combat. The Mariner is approximately 1.5 feet in diameter and typically used for surveillance missions. Meanwhile, the Global Hawk is similar in size to the Predator, but primarily carries cargo. This wide range of ability has allowed U.S. military forces to take on operations far too dangerous for physical contact.

The United States isn’t only country that is taking advantage of this equipment, however. In fact, since their creation, several nations besides the U.S. have also grabbed hold of the opportunity. As stated in “World of Drones: Military,” “the virtual monopoly on drones that the States once enjoyed is long gone. According to data collected by New America, there are 86 countries that have some sort of drone capability, both armed and unarmed.” Of these countries, eight have used their drones in combat, including the United States, Israel, United Kingdom, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Iran, and Turkey. Map here. This demonstrates the sweeping effect of 9/11 worldwide with regard to drone technology.

One reason as to why UAVs have become so globally coveted is that they are far less expensive than standard combat methods. As can be seen on ProCon.org, “Drone strikes are cheaper than engaging in ground or manned aerial combat. With approximately $5 billion allocated for drones in the 2012 Department of Defense budget, America’s entire drone program constitutes only about 1% of the entire annual military budget. In comparison, the military’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program alone cost the United States $9.7 billion in fiscal year 2012. US manned military attack aircraft cost anywhere from $18,000 to $169,000 per hour to operate – six to 42 times more than attack drones.” The economic benefits of employing drones over troops have been huge. Sequentially, this has served as strong incentive for militaries to continue and even increase the number they have in use.

Military operations in and out of the battlefield have become completely different procedures than what they were before 9/11. In instances where soldiers would have been required to search hazardous areas for potential threats, a drone can simply fly in and assess the situation before anyone is put at harm. Men and women that would have had to physically enter high-risk areas in order to gather intel can now do so behind the comfort of a computer screen thousands of miles away. Due to the flight of the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, the United States was able to track down Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad safe house and eliminate any future disasters he would have initiated. Flying a UAV is far less expensive than recruiting a human soldier, and has made drastic changes to the execution and efficiency of military practices today. Therefore, as a result of the fear embedded in the United States population following the attacks on September 11th, drones have become a ubiquitous technology and an international necessity.

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