McCurley was an Air Force Predator pilot and commander for much of the past decade. This book is a collection of stories detailing the Predator RPA operations in the war on terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
There are two separate crews for each Predator flight. The launch/recovery group is “in theater” in Afghanistan or Djibouti or wherever – somewhere safe, but close to the action. They are in charge of launching and landing the planes, as well as maintaining them. The mission pilots and sensor operators are for the most part at Creech AFB near Las Vegas. Predators stay aloft for much longer than an 8 hour shift, so there is usually a hand-off or two between pilots for every single mission.
For the most part, the work seems kind of boring but interspersed with brief moments of excitement (e.g. firing a Hellfire missile). They spend weeks following every move of a “high value” individual to establish a “pattern of life” – both to plan out the optimal time and place of execution (that’s really what it is…) and to see what other leads could be gained. When the time comes to take a shot, there is a rather lengthy chain of command approval that seems to go pretty close, if not all the way up, to Obama. Sometimes this is a significant delay…made me wonder why they don’t establish some specific rules of engagement for such targets they have been tracking for months, rather than waiting on real-time approvals?
For combat support, the rules are a little more forgiving. If our soldiers are in danger and need support, Predators in the area can be diverted to go take a shot or two. This seems to be the most fulfilling part of the Predator pilot’s job.
Final impression: the military is just big. There are huge pieces of real estate out in the middle of the desert in these places with billions of dollars of equipment and thousands of people.
Interesting overview of the developing use of unmanned systems in warfare. The vast majority of the book focuses on the ethical, social, and legal implications; all fine and good but the engineer in me did wish it got more into the details of how some of these systems worked. Some of the specific systems it did mention frequently are iRobot’s PackBot, Foster-Miller’s SWORDS, and Predator. (Note that the book was published in 2009, so it is missing 6 years of unmanned system development … practically an eternity!)
I am hesitant to agree with calling all these systems “robots” though. I suppose I fall more into the (Star Trek’s) Data or (Star Wars) C-3PO camp of what constitutes a “robot” – intelligent yes, but more importantly independent. The unmanned systems used by the military do not think or act for themselves; they are all remotely controlled by a human. There is quite a big step between that and creating Skynet-style robots. And personally, I know just enough about software engineering to be very hesitant to subscribe to a “strong AI” future. Computers are not smart; they are just fast.
Anyway. Unmanned systems in war. There’s some discussion in the book on military doctrine for using unmanned systems. First is the “mothership” or control center idea – one where a single operator is able to control an entire robot army. Kind of like someone playing Starcraft, but each unit on the screen is really an actual robot, ready for battle. Second option discussed is the “swarm” doctrine. There is no explicit control over each unit here; rather the robots as a group are given an objective and they work together to complete the mission.
One of the most impressive uses of remotely-piloted aircraft in a real war was by Israel during the opening of its 1982 war with Syria, Operation Mole Cricket 19. The Syrians had the latest and greatest Soviet radars and SAM sites. The Israelis first sent in a wave of drones. This caused the Syrian SAM radars to track the drones and shoot them down. Thus they were down a few rounds of ammo…but the real secret was that the drones relayed the radar frequencies being used by each individual radar site back to the main Israeli force. Soon after, Israeli fighters went in with radar-homing missiles locked to the SAM frequencies. The Syrian air defenses were demolished with few Israeli losses, and the war was pretty much decided since Israeli air superiority was assured.
Another interesting note on the pace of technological development, particularly in military tech. Paradoxically, being the tech leader is a difficult position. The leader shoulders virtually all the development cost, whereas others coming in later can easily copy their designs. (Witness: about a bajillion types of Chinese UAVs on this Wikipedia page) Also it is easy for the leader to pigeonhole themselves into non-optimal solutions – the newcomer can apply lessons learned and avoid problems, whereas the tech leader may be too invested to change.
Some things to think about for unmanned warfare policy managers (if such a beast exists):
- Robot warfare is seen as cowardly by the enemy, plus it signals that we are very loss-averse – if they can kill enough soldiers with IEDs then we will give up (even though those IED strikes are usually tactically useless)
- Robot warfare makes U.S. public more disconnected from war and also make leaders more likely to use force. For military operators themselves, they are like a video game – too easy to forget that people are dying on the other end of the Predator missile strikes.
- Ethics and legality of robot warfare: who is responsible for accidental targeting of civilians? Military user? The programmer who made a mistake in the code? (I hope not!)
I really enjoyed this book. I might be biased though: 1) I’m an engineer in the defense industry, 2) I worked in a UAV lab during grad school, 3) I live virtually down the street from General Atomics ASI. So I felt pretty familiar with the background landscape, so to speak, surrounding the story of Predator – from inception until being integrated with a laser seeker and Hellfire missiles.
My overall impression was that this is a product made by many hands, with many who have championed it along the way. It’s kind of sad that it took so much backroom finagling and overrides from top leadership to get new, novel technology like this past multiple levels of Pentagon and military bureaucracy. But it was an idea who’s time had come. Even skeptics of the whole idea were hooked on “Predator porn” when live video started being pumped into command centers and bigwig offices around the world.
Some of the heroes of the story:
- Abe Karem, virtuoso aircraft designer. He seemed frustrated with the slow pace of getting his designs accepted and used by the military, so left that work to others and moved on. He’s still in the aircraft business.
- Neal and Linden Blue, owners of General Atomics. On summer break from Yale in the 1950’s, they and a few friends dreamed up an ultimate road trip, from France to India. Dreams are a dime a dozen, though — they actually did it. For funding, they first went to the New York Times, pitched the idea and got publishing agreement for stories they would write along the way. Next, they went down to Chrysler (I think?) and told them about the great publicity the company would get via their news stories if they would donate a ruggedized, late model car and supplies. They did, and the trip was a success. The next year, they did a similar stunt only by plane and through South America, ultimately schmoozing with the Somoza family of Nicaragua and starting a banana plantation.
- “Werner,” the anonymous satellite engineer who time and again came through with novel solutions with culminated in today’s operations where Predators in Afghanistan and elsewhere are remotely piloted from the Nevada desert. That’s pretty amazing.