Ancient by information age standards, Hunter is an Army drone that’s been in use since the Kosovo War in 1999. At 2,000 pounds, it’s neither sleek nor personal, more of a family car that’s hardy enough to have abundant cup holders than a hot rod. But with a heavy fuel internal combustion engine that allows it to operate from unimproved airstrips, Hunter can fly for over 18 hours, giving it the endurance and range necessary to support ground operations out to some distance.

Whereas Global Hawk is labeled “strategic” in the sense that it serves national masters and global missions, and drones like Predator and Reaper are labeled “theater” in that they are scheduled by central authorities (that is, when they are flying on behalf of the CIA or special operations), Hunter is “organic” to the Corps commander, that is, under the control of the Army. But keeping with its minivan design, it can also do what few other drones can, and was the first in all departments. It was the first Army unmanned aircraft deployed to a war zone, going to Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division, and it was the first Army drone capable of firing a weapon, making its military intelligence operators into mini-assassins of their own stripe (see sidebar below).

“On September 1, 2007, two IED bombers in northern Iraq were killed while lying in wait to detonate their roadside bomb the next time American soldiers passed by. The insurgents themselves were being watched by an army Hunter drone flying high overhead. Without any noise or warning, a weapon came out of the sky and killed the men. It was the first army weapon fired from one of its own drones in combat, organically able to spy and kill at the same time and all on its own.

But the missile wasn’t Hellfire, Predator’s aptly named hunter killer, nor was it one of the half dozen weapons configured for delivery by Reaper, just then newly flying over the skies of the Middle East. It was Viper Strike. A glide weapon modified from a Cold War invention intended to attack massed armored formations with swarms of what were then called “brilliant” munitions, the reconfigured Viper Strike was reoriented as a single weapon for the purpose of killing individuals. It weighs only a third of Predator’s Hellfire, and has just 2.5 pounds of explosives, one-twentieth of even that small weapon’s punch. ....

Viper Strike is a kind of cop on the beat, turning loitering not just into observation of what goes on the corners of Everybad but also into its own SWAT team, the full cycle completed in turning everyday soldiers into assassins for the Machine.”

Excerpt from Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare

Originally co-developed by Israel Aircraft Industries and TRW (now Northrop Grumman), Hunter found a home as one of the Army’s principal unmanned platforms. As it flew in Iraq, it was not only weaponized but also was one of the first Army drones to be fitted with a complete communications intercept black box (called Green Dart). Only three dozen Hunters exist, assigned to Corps-level military intelligence battalions at Fort Stewart, GA; Ft. Hood, TX; and in Hohenfels, Germany. They are scheduled to fly until 2022.

Fun facts about Hunter:

  • In 2002, Dyke Weatherington (seriously), then deputy of the Defense Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Office, claimed Hunter and Pioneer, one of the first UAVs developed, were “direct derivatives of Israeli systems,” and that many of the UAVs in use at the time were owed to Israel, “which develops UAVs aggressively.” A 2013 AP article verified this claim a decade later with a blaring headline reading, “Israel Is World’s Largest Drone Exporter.”
  • At one point in the mid-90s, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a recommendation that read, “Hunter System Is Not Appropriate for Navy Fleet Use.” This recommendation was handed down due to what reads as program mismanagement, and it seems like the Hunter remained an Army project thereafter.
  • In 2004, Hunter was one of the first drones used in a trial border monitoring program by DHS, Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, and the Office of Air and Marine. According to a presentation after the program concluded, “...Hunter flew 329 flight hours, resulting in 556 detections.” But as Predator and other UAVs replaced Hunter in the program, the results became less worthwhile and in 2013, a scathing report from the Inspector General at DHS claimed, “After spending eight years and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has yet to prove the value of its Unmanned Aircraft System (drone) program while drastically understating the costs, according to a new report by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Inspector General (OIG). Based on its findings, OIG recommends that CBP abandon plans to spend $443 million more on additional aircraft and put those funds to better use.” Ouch.

[First image courtesy of Getty; art tag by Jim Cooke. Second photo courtesy of the Army.]