Last night’s epic talking filibuster by Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, joined by senators Republican and Democrat (well, one Democrat), brought the GOP caucus, however briefly, around to a civil libertarian position scarcely imaginable for those of us who remember the George W. Bush years. Lindsey Graham and John McCain are still fighting the good fight, however.
Where did drones come from? Did they vault from the pages of science fiction straight into our hypothetical cafe experience? The answer is stranger than you think.
P.W. Singer (not to be confused with Peter Singer) gives a terrific history of robot warfare at the beginning of his book Wired for War, which is partially condensed in an essay at The New Atlantis. Drones began, as many great inventions have, with Nikola Tesla, who “first mastered wireless communication in 1893,” driving a motorboat outside Madison Square Garden. He was laughed out of the military for proposing the efficacy of his boat and remote controlled torpedoes.
World War I brought technology to warfare in a particularly unwieldy fashion–the strategy was 19th-century, the weapons were 20th-century. Prototypes floated around like supply-running “electric dogs” and the Kettering “Bug,” a gyroscope- and barometer-guided plane that crashed into things. The Germans guarded their coastlines with FL-7’s, boats loaded up with explosives and controlled by wire until Tesla’s wireless radio control entered the fields of war in 1916.
For the most part, World War I was a time of odd experiments in unmanned warfare, with few projects getting enough traction or funding to be implemented. World War II, on the other hand, was a veritable technological bonanza.
The Germans created the first cruise missile, ballistic missile, and jet fighter, as well as the first drone. The German drone, the FX-1400 or “Fritz” was, as Singer describes it: “a 2,300 pound bomb with four small wings, tail controls, and a rocket motor” that the Germans would drop from planes and guide by radio to its target.
The Americans were behind the curve, but experimented with “Operation Aphrodite” in 1944. Aphrodite was a plan to send bomber planes loaded with over a ton of Torpex–an explosive 50% stronger than TNT–and have the pilot bail once the explosives were armed so that a nearby ship could use video cameras mounted on the drone to guide it into heavily protected Nazi targets. On August 12, 1944 when a navy equivalent was sent out in pursuit of an experimental Nazi supercannon, the Torpex exploded before the plane even crossed the channel, killing the crew and scuttling the program in fear of the pilot’s powerful father.
The pilot of that ship was Joseph Kennedy, Jr., JFK’s older brother. Joe Kennedy the father was a millionaire, movie mogul, and most importantly, powerful political figure and former ambassador to Great Britain who was set on electing his eldest son Joe Junior president. After the younger Joe was killed, John F. Kennedy took up the family burden.
After World War II, drones took a backseat in the American military. The Firefly drone flew 3,435 missions over Vietnam and South Asia, but 16% crashed with no field tests or data collection. The Army launched the Aquila program in 1979, but burdened it with so many demands that the original battlefield spy became a typical bureaucratic boondoggle, with the original order of $560 million for nearly 800 drones turning into more than $1 billion for prototypes. Most of the experimental ground drones of this period were operated by fiber optic wire, ignoring Tesla once again and proving vulnerable to scissors.
Desert Storm made military air tech sexy, post-Cold War cuts made it a rising budgetary priority, and John Warner added a legislative mandate to a defense authorization bill in early 2001 that one-third of all attack aircraft should be unmanned by 2010. The drone explosion since the war on terror brought us to the present day, with unmanned aircraft flying missions across the world and becoming a key part of President Obama’s anti-terrorism strategy.
A final interesting note: the Global Hawk Drone pictured above is manufactured by Northrop Grumman, which bought out one of the most prominent drone manufacturers of World War II after the war. This manufacturer had a factory near Hollywood where an Army photographer doing a feature on women in industry discovered a shapely young lady working on the drones, and sent the photos he took of her to a modeling agency. The woman would soon become better known as Marilyn Monroe.