Predator wasn’t the first drone, but it’s become the only drone: the one we know by name, the one that kills, the high-flying border-ignoring angel of death.
Every second of every day, it quietly presides over the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and Syria and Somalia and Nigeria, exemplifying our global reach and punctuating our safety and impunity. It’s the perfect symbol of the arrogant American, a messenger that communicates pure and simple to those who hate it and hate us: Come and get us, we are safe at home.
Though Predator can be simply understood—an airframe, a budget line item, a performance record—it’s also getting old. The invention goes back now more than 20 years, though the airframes and their all-important sensors, weapons and black boxes have been constantly updated. It is no longer in production, supplanted by even hardier and more heavily armed next generations.
And what facts do you need? Three Predator patrol lines (24/7 orbits) in 2003 grew to 18 by 2007, 31 by 2008, and 60 by 2012—65 at its height. Really all one needs to know about Predator is that scope: what scale of intelligence and communications and maintenance and training to run 65 24/7 “lines,” to prepare, process and digest all of that, to come up with missions, to sustain such a system in precision splendor.
From Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare:
Some insist that Predator originated in the mind of a Baghdad-born Israeli turned mad scientist named Abraham “Abe” Karem; or that a courageous CIA engineer named “Jane” defied the bureaucracy and made it so. Then there’s a retired air force colonel known to all by his call sign, Snake, who spearheaded Predator’s development by cutting through the bureaucracy. Another member of the cast is an army weapons expert who goes by the nickname Boom Boom, who integrated the Hellfire missile and changed the game completely. Lurking nearby is another woman called the Black Widow, who figured out matters of temperature and torque. Or maybe it was retired navy rear admiral Thomas J. Cassidy, who became CEO and president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Predator’s California birthplace. Others say it was CIA director R. James Woolsey; or Secretary of Defense William Perry; or Under Secretary of Defense (and future CIA director) John Deutch. Air force aficionados say chief of staff General Ron Fogleman had the vision of a reconnaissance platform in an era of disappearing planes and declining budgets. Others say it was General John P. Jumper, European commander and later chief of staff, who experienced all of the limitations of Bosnia and Kosovo and then went on to champion an armed drone, a system conceived and developed because of the vision of this one man.
None of these characterizations tells the whole story, but they do suggest that someone is responsible, that “drones,” despite the name, were spurred by imagination and courage; that there is a hero. Except that in the case of Predator, modern-day historians have a hard time putting a face to the machine...
The simplistic argument regarding Predator (regarding all drones, really) is that the world is changing, that China has its own version of Predator, that even Hizballah has drones, and that soon it will be long-range Russian and Iranian and even ISIS drones and then we’d better watch out.
And no doubt that day is coming. But the true story of Predator is the enormous intelligence machine behind it, one that Top Secret America and Edward Snowden have barely begun to describe. That machine has a roving global eye but it is fundamentally American, ginormous in the way only the U.S. military system is, physically located mostly back in the United States and embedded within civil society making use of communications and even the Internet to form the back end of operations and collection and analysis.
This unique American machine is why our enemies are so intent on striking American soil and the American heart, and it is why no other nation can reproduce what our drones and system can do. Our NATO partners and our countless other military allies—from Jordan to Japan—might suckle off the American spying and killing lifeblood, but no one even comes close. So our enemies hack away and use airliners as weapons and massacre where and what they can, they literally kill themselves trying.
There is a solution: It isn’t to change the name—Predator’s replacement are already, thankfully, going by the names Reaper and Avenger to keep it real—and it probably won’t be to eliminate warfare and thus military drones.
The only solution is...information for all: That magical day when everyone has a political system that something looks like ours, where a professional military possesses all of the precision tools and is so skilled and trusted no one in a position of domestic leadership or civil society fears it. In other words, when the Chinese (or ISIS) becomes like us, they too can have their hands-off killing machine, they too can be citizens of a nation who can ignore war and go shopping and watch TV if that’s what they choose.
Of course the flaw in this argument, and the crux of the problem, is that not everyone wants to be homogenized into a one-economy, one-language, undifferentiated world. And so they war against us, desperately, and we continue to be slaves to the machine, thinking we are protected.
[Top photo courtesy of the Department of Defense. Second photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. Final photo courtesy of Getty.]