During the First World War, America began to build and test its first robot attack plane. Called the Curtiss-Sperry Flying Bomb, it was basically a full-sized biplane with some primitive radio controls. The intention was for it to be able to fly a set course and then drop a bomb. The war came to a close before the kinks could be ironed out of the tests (taking off and landing being fairly critical unresolved issues), but note that the desire of governments to have remotely-operated aircraft is as old as aircraft themselves.
The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or ‘attack drone’ has long been synonymous with the War on Terror. The use of these aircraft to pick off al-Qaeda bosses like Anwar al-Awlaki as they drove along desert roads or the Israeli penchant for using them to launch missiles through apartment windows is well known. The maturing of such technologies in the same timeline as the WoT is coincidental, but they do happen to be entirely suited to the nature of this type of conflict: lots of waiting and watching.
The ability to stay in the sky is one thing. But what really appeals is the fact that they are relatively cheap to build and when they do get shot down, there is no friendly loss of life, or worse still, the PR embarrassment of having your pilots captured and appearing on a jihadist YouTube clip.
The concept of the attack drone got given a kick along by the rocket scientists of the Third Reich. Also known as a flying bomb, the Nazi’s V1 was essentially an unmanned aircraft with a primitive ability to measure how far it had travelled and cut its engine over the intended target, thence to dive and explode. Accuracy was limited to “hopefully somewhere in Greater London”, but numbers made up for the shoddy targeting of what was essentially a last-ditch terror weapon. Over a million homes were damaged by V1s and more than 22,000 civilians became casualties.
In the 50s and 60s similar ‘set and forget’ drones were used for target practice and reconnaissance. These twin roles are still the mainstay of UAV activity and cover everything from tiny hand-launched model planes with webcams right up to the mighty Global Hawk, a full sized jet aircraft sensor package that can hang in the sky for 36 hours and travel 25,000 km on a single tank.
It’s here that the terminology can get a bit pedantic. The early drones were called that because they had no mind of their own. Like the V1s they just flew a simple course until they returned to Earth. The modern UAVs have a degree of autonomy, with the more sophisticated versions having the ability to optimise their flight paths, speed and multi-tasking.
Despite their prolific use for surveillance and signal gathering, it’s the more sinister platforms that are of interest to the war geeks and media alike. Stuff with names like Predator, Reaper and Avenger. Loaded up with Hellfire missiles, these are the machines that buzz above the Pakistani border or the Gaza Strip, on call to pick off targets of opportunity or to assassinate particular individuals.
It’s important to state that attack drones do not have the independence to identify targets and launch their weapons. These decisions are made by their human controllers back at base.
Besides their use as a flying hitman, the Middle East has seen some other newsworthy UAV incidents. Back in Gulf War 1, an Iraqi battalion surrendered to a remote controlled reconnaissance plane from the USS Wisconsin. Knowing full well that the UAV was spotting for an American battleship, the Iraqis waved white flags for the cameras and spared themselves a 16-inch broadside.
In Gulf War 2 an American Predator took on a manned Iraqi MiG in a missile dogfight. And lost.
More lately there has been the loss of a Sentinel UAV over Iran. The stealth-technology Sentinel is the robot plane you use when you don’t want another country (especially a friendly one) to know that you’re hanging out in their airspace. It’s no coincidence that the Sentinel has been linked to the surveillance carried out on Bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout.
Now Iran reckons they’re going to back-engineer the captured UAV and produce their own version. They’ll probably call it something that translates poorly. Like “Fiery Horse” or “Martyr’s Pillow”.
But you just know that if they do try to launch it anywhere near the Americans, there’ll be a Predator or a Warrior or even a Curtiss-Sperry Flying Bomb loitering around to give it an unmanned bitch slap.