Gone, but it shouldn’t be forgotten. Pioneer has the distinction of being the only U.S. military drone that has flown in every major conflict from 1991’s Desert Storm to the 2003 Operation Return for Another Try. Officially retired in 2010 after its “successful” use by the Marines in al Anbar province in western Iraq, Pioneer has flown. And flown. And flown.

In Pioneer’s case, successful means the 20-year-old drone flew and photographed, when the weather cooperated and the maintenance people managed to carefully coax it into the skies. With its characteristic screeching sound, Pioneer was anything but stealthy. There was always a 50/50 chance whether it would get off the ground. So with wood-laminated propeller and pre-Pentium technology, it also represents how much has changed, and yet in the assessment of what value it brought to the fight, it screeches out the question: How do you assess this technology?

Take Iraq from 2004-2008, Pioneer’s final years. It supported the Marines in their fight in western Iraq, but for all the pictures provided by it and other drones, we never seem to have been able to see the big picture. So we “won” by paying off the Sons of Iraq, left, lost, and now watch the entire region fall under ISIS’ thrall, readying ourselves to go back in, still flying Pioneer’s grandsons and great-grandsons, hoping that some new picture will provide a better picture of what we should do.

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

“Exceptional utility,” Vice Admiral David Jeremiah, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of Pioneer’s role [in Operation Desert Storm] when the war was over. The Pentagon’s postwar report on unmanned systems lauded the “unprecedented success” of the drone, which it said proved “the utility and importance of UAVs in combat.” Only one was shot down, the Defense Department crowed. “Pioneer became a legend,” said another analysis.

Without digging further, uncurious historians refer to “Pioneer’s ability to spot each sixteen-inch round fired by U.S. battleships in real time,” thereby increasing “the accuracy of the big guns.” “Ability” is the key word here: there is no evidence that the Pioneer did more than fly and film. And “accuracy” also has a very strange definition; the obsolete and inaccurate projectiles hit the ground, but we don’t know much more about what happened to these shells, which weighed as much as a Volkswagen Beetle. They barreled down to earth with all of hell’s fury, the very antithesis of precision and a leftover of another epoch, America’s own version of Scud terror. In fact, over a period of sixty hours, from February 23 to 26, almost six hundred parcels of retribution — more than half of all the projectiles fired during Desert Storm and nearly as many shells as American battleships fired during the last fifteen months of World War II — rained down on the coastal “defenders.”

Fun Facts About Pioneer:

  • Pioneer required such a light touch during handling that it became something of a joke following its retirement. A 2003 report from the Air Force Historical Research Agency claimed that, “UAVs should be improved to reduce their vulnerability to weather,enemy air defenses, and mechanical and communication failures,” and cited, “By 1998, the peacetime attrition rate for the Pioneer UAV was 17 times higher than that for manned aircraft” as evidence.
  • “Once during Desert Storm, Iraqi troops actually surrendered to a Pioneer. At the time, the battleship USS Missouri used its Pioneer to spot for its 16-inch main guns and devastate the defenses of Faylaka Island, which is off the Kuwaiti coast near Kuwait City.
    Shortly after, while still over the horizon and invisible to the defenders, the USS Wisconsin deliberately flew its Pioneer low over Faylaka Island. When the Iraqi defenders heard the sound of the UAV’s two-cycle engine, they knew they were targeted for more naval shelling. The Iraqis signaled surrender by waving handkerchiefs, undershirts and bed sheets.” That’s a widely-repeated anecdote from the Navy and other military historians but completely debunked in my new book Unmanned.
  • Pioneer, yet another Israeli-system derived UAV, has been replaced by Shadow, made domestically by Pioneer’s manufacturer, AAI Corporation. Now a subsidiary of Textron, Inc., which also owns Bell Helicopter and Cessna Aircraft (among other things). Textron reported $3.43 billion in revenue last year. Here’s a fun slogan they paid their PR team to come up with using that money:

[Photos courtesy of the Navy. Screenshot courtesy of Textron, Inc.]