Warfare made a quantum leap just 15 years ago. The history of the development of weapons has been a constant effort to kill from greater and greater distances


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January 20, 2016 - DRONES
Warfare made a quantum leap just 15 years ago. The history of the development of weapons has been a constant effort to kill from greater and greater distances. In October 2001 a drone pilot executed a discreet kill of two Taliban guards from 6,900 miles away. The birth of drone warfare is covered in an article in Wired Magazine

ON THE AFTERNOON of October 7, 2001, the first day of the war in Afghanistan, an Air Force pilot named Scott Swanson made history while sitting in a captain’s chair designed for an RV. His contribution to posterity was to kill someone in a completely novel way.

In the moments leading up to the act, Swanson was nervous. He sat in a darkened trailer tucked behind a parking garage at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, remotely piloting a Predator drone over Kandahar, 6,900 miles away. Nearly everything about his rig had been cobbled together and hastily assembled. The Predator itself, one of just a handful in existence, was flying about 250 pounds heavier than usual. And the satellite communications link that connected Swanson to the aircraft would periodically shut down due to a power issue, which software engineers in California were frantically trying to patch.

When the order came through to take the shot, Swanson pulled a trigger on his joystick. A little more than a second later, a Hellfire missile slid off an aluminum rail on the Predator’s wing and sailed into the Afghan night.

Swanson’s target was a pickup truck parked outside a compound thought to be hiding Mullah Omar, the supreme commander of the Taliban. The missile killed two unidentified men believed to have been his bodyguards. It was the first time a US drone had fired a weapon in combat. It was the first time a modern drone had ever killed a human being. ...

... the national security establishment’s embrace of the drone has been so complete, it’s tempting to assume that this new paradigm of warfare was something dreamed up long ago by senior officials, who methodically plotted their way to it over a span of years and a string of defense contracts. That is, after all, how we got other major weapons like the M1 Abrams tank, the Apache helicopter, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

But that’s not how we got the modern drone. ...

... The tiny team of engineers and operators behind the program, who rarely speak publicly about their roles as the architects of remote warfare, worked under intense pressure, almost entirely free from the scrutiny of Pentagon acquisitions officers. In a series of breakthrough hacks, they hot-wired together the lethal, remotely piloted Predator over the course of just a few months in 2000 and 2001, in a mad dash to meet the heinous design challenges of a single job: to kill Osama bin Laden before he could commit an act of terror greater than al Qaeda’s bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. 

The lethal Predator wasn’t a production vehicle. It was a hot rod, built for one all-out race against the clock. Of course, in those months before September 11, 2001, none of its designers knew the nature of the clock they were racing against. And most Americans have no idea quite how close they came to beating it. ... 

 

... Sitting in his windowless office with a short public affairs staffer and a very tall security officer, the official—whom I’ll call Marshall—told me about that first time he saw the Predator in action in Hungary. "I was blown away," he says. "It flies at 70 miles an hour with a TV camera, but it can stay there forever." Marshall could see that it represented a strategic breakthrough comparable to that of the World War II codebreakers at Bletchley Park. From then on, he became a Predator evangelist, providing political cover and money when the project faced a roadblock. As I looked around Marshall’s office, I noticed several bottles of a wine called Predator Old Vine Zinfandel sitting on a bookshelf.

In 1998, Marshall helped see to it that the Predator program was handed over to a tiny outfit within the military that would essentially improvise the genesis of modern drone warfare: an entity known as Big Safari.

A HIGHLY SECRETIVE Air Force skunkworks based in Dayton, Ohio, Big Safari specialized in modifying standard Air Force aircraft for time-sensitive and highly classified operations, sometimes even for use in just a single mission. In 1961, for instance, when Nikita Khrushchev boasted that he was about to test the largest hydrogen bomb ever built, Big Safari had just five days to retrofit a Boeing KC-135 to carry a small lab’s worth of sensing equipment—shored up with two-by-fours—to snoop on the enormous detonation. ...

 

... Today the Big Safari team members don’t have much to do with the Predator. They’re mainly retired or doing other things, while the national security establishment that once disparaged the drone has thoroughly embraced it. The Predator has ushered in a more precise era of warfare. It has also inspired new kinds of nightmares for those who live under drones—and those who fly them.

In the summer, Swanson Skypes me from Antigua. During those first missions, he says, he was struck by the intimacy of this new form of warfare. "You’re watching these people coming and going," he says. "You’re watching them go out and take dumps or pees in the middle of the night.

"I’m not saying you ever really bond with the target," he goes on. But you dwell on them for dramatically longer than with any other weapons system, he says. His pauses begin to draw out.

I ask how it feels to have participated in the creation of the Predator. He mentions a recent drone strike that killed Nasir al-Wuhayshi, al Qaeda’s second-in-command. "I feel proud to have been part of the team that brought that forward," he says.

What about when a strike misses its target or is used for ill? That has less to do with what the Predator can and cannot do, he says. "That is just the ugly nature of war. And yeah, there’s always a little twinge of regret with that." Swanson pauses again. "The world is not black-and-white," he says. "It’s shades of gray presented to you in an infrared image."

 

 

 

Wired had another piece on drones; When Good Drones Go Bad. 

LATE IN THE summer of 2014, surveillance footage of Syria’s Tabqa air base showed up on YouTube. That it was taken by ISIS forces is unremarkable. That it was shot with a DJI Phantom FC40—a popular consumer drone at the time, the kind you might have found under the Christmas tree—certainly was.

In the intervening year and a half, small quadcopter drones have become even more affordable and more broadly available. That’s enabled them to find all sorts of positive new purposes, from agriculture to inspecting cell towers. That increased accessibility, though, has also inspired a proportionate amount of concern about the misuse of drones. A new report (PDF) from the non-profit group Open Briefing lays bare just how far the threat from hobbyist drones has evolved, and how seriously we should take it. ...

 

For comic relief, late night from Andy Malcolm.

Conan: New electronic gadgets out include a drone that follows you around and lets you take selfies 24/7. The device was developed by a team of the world’s leading Kardashiologists.

Fallon: I don't want to say Hillary Clinton's upset about Bernie Sanders’ poll rise. But this morning she was spotted shouting into a volcano, “YOU SAID WE HAD A DEAL!”

Meyers: The federal government has unveiled new nutritional guidelines, recommending people eat more fruit, vegetables and whole wheat. Or at the very least, cut back on foods that have the word “triple” in their name.







 

 

 

   

 

Wired

How Rogue Techies Armed the Predator, Almost Stopped 9/11, and Accidentally Invented Remote War

by Arthur Holland Michel

ON THE AFTERNOON of October 7, 2001, the first day of the war in Afghanistan, an Air Force pilot named Scott Swanson made history while sitting in a captain’s chair designed for an RV. His contribution to posterity was to kill someone in a completely novel way.

In the moments leading up to the act, Swanson was nervous. He sat in a darkened trailer tucked behind a parking garage at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, remotely piloting a Predator drone over Kandahar, 6,900 miles away. Nearly everything about his rig had been cobbled together and hastily assembled. The Predator itself, one of just a handful in existence, was flying about 250 pounds heavier than usual. And the satellite communications link that connected Swanson to the aircraft would periodically shut down due to a power issue, which software engineers in California were frantically trying to patch.

When the order came through to take the shot, Swanson pulled a trigger on his joystick. A little more than a second later, a Hellfire missile slid off an aluminum rail on the Predator’s wing and sailed into the Afghan night.

Swanson’s target was a pickup truck parked outside a compound thought to be hiding Mullah Omar, the supreme commander of the Taliban. The missile killed two unidentified men believed to have been his bodyguards. It was the first time a US drone had fired a weapon in combat. It was the first time a modern drone had ever killed a human being.

THE PILOT



Scott Swanson, a Minnesota-born Air Force captain, made the first-ever kill from a remotely operated drone 14 years ago.

Fourteen years later, the drone is the quintessential weapon of the American military, which now boasts roughly a thousand Predator pilots. At any given moment, scores of them sit in darkened trailers around the country, staring at the bright infrared camera feeds from drones that might be flying over Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, or Somalia. Between August 2014 and August 2015, a single Predator squadron—the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing in Nevada—flew 4,300 sorties and dropped 1,000 warheads on ISIS targets. By enabling the White House to intervene without committing troops to battle, the drone has transformed US foreign policy.

Indeed, the national security establishment’s embrace of the drone has been so complete, it’s tempting to assume that this new paradigm of warfare was something dreamed up long ago by senior officials, who methodically plotted their way to it over a span of years and a string of defense contracts. That is, after all, how we got other major weapons like the M1 Abrams tank, the Apache helicopter, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

But that’s not how we got the modern drone. The Predator as we know it—with its capacity to be piloted from thousands of miles away and its complement of Hellfire missiles—wasn’t developed with the expectation that entire wars might one day be fought by pilots sitting in trailers. As a matter of fact, most military planners at the time regarded the Predator as pretty much a technological dead end.

The tiny team of engineers and operators behind the program, who rarely speak publicly about their roles as the architects of remote warfare, worked under intense pressure, almost entirely free from the scrutiny of Pentagon acquisitions officers. In a series of breakthrough hacks, they hot-wired together the lethal, remotely piloted Predator over the course of just a few months in 2000 and 2001, in a mad dash to meet the heinous design challenges of a single job: to kill Osama bin Laden before he could commit an act of terror greater than al Qaeda’s bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. 

The lethal Predator wasn’t a production vehicle. It was a hot rod, built for one all-out race against the clock. Of course, in those months before September 11, 2001, none of its designers knew the nature of the clock they were racing against. And most Americans have no idea quite how close they came to beating it.

AMERICA’S FIRST LETHAL drone pilot was obsessed with flying from an early age. Growing up in Minnetonka, Minnesota, he joined the Civil Air Patrol at 13, got his private pilot’s license at 18, and enrolled in the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Minnesota just after graduating from high school. During the first Gulf War, he flew UH-1 Iroquois "Huey" helicopters. After Iraq, Swanson became a special operations pilot, focusing on sensitive and covert missions. Whenever he was at home base, he would volunteer to help test new Air Force weapons.

In 1997, Swanson was coming up on the end of a two-year mission in Iceland, some details of which remain classified. ("The Icelandic women were amazing" is about as much as he’ll volunteer.) Contemplating his next move, he searched a database of Air Force duty openings and found a curious posting that asked for rated pilots to join the Eleventh Reconnaissance Squadron at Indian Springs Air Force Base, near Las Vegas. The two-year assignment was to fly the Air Force’s newest aircraft, a little-known bird called the Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.

An avid reader of Aviation Week, Swanson already knew a bit about the unmanned aircraft. Hand-built by a small, idiosyncratic California startup called General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, it had been used in the Balkans for surveillance since 1995. But it was not well loved by the defense establishment. The Predator was unarmed, couldn’t fly in bad weather, and could only be operated within a 500-mile range of the pilot. In 1997, an evaluation by the Defense Department found that it suffered mechanical failures in a staggering 12 percent of missions.

To most Air Force pilots, the idea of operating a drone would be a nonstarter. Pilots fly in planes. But Swanson had always been interested in tinkering, technology, and experimental weapons. (As a teenager, he once used a homemade batch of cellulose nitrate to fire a projectile through the door of an abandoned car.) And as a special operations pilot, he grasped the Predator’s surveillance capability right away. "It kind of clicked," he says.

So Swanson signed up with the Eleventh, and before the year was out he was in Taszár, Hungary, flying surveillance drones over Bosnia on a four-month deployment—the beginning of a years-long career with the Predator.

It was also in Taszár that the Predator caught the eye of another figure who would be crucial in its development, a senior Defense Department officer who was among the first to recognize the aircraft’s potential. This past spring, I made my way to the Pentagon to meet him. (For security reasons, he declined to be named.)

 

THE GODFATHER



Marshall” was the Predator program’s main advocate within the Pentagon, ushering it past administrative hurdles and helping put it in the hands of Big Safari.

Sitting in his windowless office with a short public affairs staffer and a very tall security officer, the official—whom I’ll call Marshall—told me about that first time he saw the Predator in action in Hungary. "I was blown away," he says. "It flies at 70 miles an hour with a TV camera, but it can stay there forever." Marshall could see that it represented a strategic breakthrough comparable to that of the World War II codebreakers at Bletchley Park. From then on, he became a Predator evangelist, providing political cover and money when the project faced a roadblock. As I looked around Marshall’s office, I noticed several bottles of a wine called Predator Old Vine Zinfandel sitting on a bookshelf.

In 1998, Marshall helped see to it that the Predator program was handed over to a tiny outfit within the military that would essentially improvise the genesis of modern drone warfare: an entity known as Big Safari.

A HIGHLY SECRETIVE Air Force skunkworks based in Dayton, Ohio, Big Safari specialized in modifying standard Air Force aircraft for time-sensitive and highly classified operations, sometimes even for use in just a single mission. In 1961, for instance, when Nikita Khrushchev boasted that he was about to test the largest hydrogen bomb ever built, Big Safari had just five days to retrofit a Boeing KC-135 to carry a small lab’s worth of sensing equipment—shored up with two-by-fours—to snoop on the enormous detonation.

 
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