An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle — commonly known as UAVs or Drones — is an aerial vehicle that is flown without the pilot being physically present on board. These aircraft fly either autonomously or with the help of a pilot controlling them from a ground station. Drones are used for operations where human intervention is either unsafe or not practical. They are generally small in size, have a compact payload, and can’t be detected easily by enemy forces.
Over the years, with the invention of more advanced technology and software, UAVs have extended their capabilities. They have evolved from initially being large, unguided bomb carriers to now being sophisticated, long-endurance, high altitude surveillance aircraft. Modern UAVs carry significantly more ordnance payload at high cruise speeds.
The development of UAVs has been a gradual process in the works for well over a century now. Believe it or not, the first application of an ‘Unmanned Aircraft’ happened way back in 1849!
Austrian Air Balloons, 1849
The SMS Vulcano was a paddle steamer that was built for the Austro-Hungarian navy in 1843. In 1848, Venice rebelled against the Austrian Empire, thereby declaring independence. In the months that followed, the Vulcano was deployed extensively in the Blockade of Venice, taking part in the first-ever aggressive use of balloons in warfare.
Roughly 200 hot air balloons, each carrying a 30-pound payload bomb, were floated from land as well as from the deck of the Vulcano. However, due to the changing winds, these hot air balloons were highly uncontrollable, and the entire mission was a disaster. It is reported, however, that at least one balloon did hit its intended target.
The Kettering Bug, 1918
Barely two decades after Wilbur and Orville Wright successfully tested the Wright Flyer in 1903, the first functioning UAV was developed in 1918. In fact, it was supervised by pioneers Orville Wright and Charles F Kettering. Under the government’s direction, the Kettering Bug was made to be the world’s first “self-flying aerial torpedo.”
The Bug was a cheaply made wooden aircraft weighing 530 pounds. Impressively it could carry a payload of 180 pounds. The engine that powered the UAV was a budget 40 dollar, 2-stroke, V4 DePalma Engine that could be mass-produced in a Ford factory. It was launched using a dolly-and-track system similar to the ones used by the Wright Brothers.
Onboard, the UAV had a gyroscope that guided it to its destination. To ensure that the Bug hit its target, operators used a mechanical system. In this simple system, the engineers calculated the number of engine revolutions needed to take the Bug to its destination. Once the estimated number of engine revolutions was reached, a cam was dropped, thereby cutting engine power. The Bug then followed a projectile path until it hit the target. Despite a certain degree of success during the original testing period, the Bug was never used in actual combat.
World War 2
During the peak of WW2, a US-based company, Radioplane, came out with the Radioplane OQ-2. The OQ-2 was the first-ever mass-produced UAV or drone in the US. The US Navy used these planes by the thousands for target practice. It was used in World War 2 using the code name TDD-1, or Target Drone Denny-1.
The OQ-2 had a simple two-cylinder, two-cycle, piston engine that could output six horsepower. It had to be launched via catapult and was recovered —should it survive the target practice— using a parachute.
After World War II ended, several experiments were made using Radioplane drones. In 1950, a variant named the QQ-3 Radioplane was used to lay communication wire. Radioplane was bought in 1952 by Northrop Corporation, the predecessor of today’s Northrop Grumman.
The Resistance War
The first noted use of drones for tactical reconnaissance operations was during the Vietnam War. The role of UAVs during this period slowly began shifting from serving as decoys during target practice to a more active role in warfare. Drones were being used in more active tasks such as serving as decoys in combat, launching missiles against fixed targets, and dropping leaflets as a part of psychological warfare.
Following the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the US was increasingly drawn to take part in the Vietnam War. The USAF deployed several C-130s and C-133s and mounted on them was the Ryan Firebee. A single Lockheed C-130 Hercules could carry a maximum of 4 Ryan Firebees.
The Firebee was the first drone to use stealth technology. Using specially designed screens over the air intake, radiation absorbing material over the fuselage, and special radar-absorbing paint, this UAV was highly undetectable by 60s standards. From August 1964 to the fall of Saigon on 30th April 1975, the USAF would launch 3435 Ryan Firebees over North Vietnam; only 554 UAVs were lost during the war.
The UAVs of the 80s and 90s
Although the usefulness of UAVs was highlighted during the Vietnam War, military drones were looked at as an expensive toy for a couple of decades. It was only after the Israeli operations in southern Lebanon in 1980 that battlefield UAVs were given a serious thought. The Israeli Air Force used its battlefield UAVs to successfully destroy Syrian surface to air missile sites as well as assist in other combat operations.
The CIA began experimenting on UAVs in the 1980s and accelerated with significant improvement in computing technology and electronic systems; modern-day drones were made possible.
In the 1991 Gulf war — or Operation Desert Shield — the world witnessed the introduction fo the AAI RQ-2 Pioneer. The Pioneer was deployed so extensively during this conflict that, according to a May 1991 Department of the Navy report, “At least one UAV was airborne at all times during Desert Storm.”
This remotely powered asset proved to be invaluable for the US in surveillance missions. They resembled oversized model planes and served as the perfect spies for US forces. A total of 522 sorties were flown not only by the US but also by coalition forces. It’s incredible camera system served as eyes for battleship guns and aerial patrols. The infrared camera picked up camouflaged troops on the ground as well as hidden vehicles. Once bombing raids, we’re completed, it circled over the area and provided a live damage assessment.
After the Gulf War further introduced to the world the capabilities of UAVs, global militaries began to invest widely in the domestic development of battlefield UAVs. However, none we’re more interested in this field than the US.
The War on Terror
The RQ-1 Predator is a long-endurance, medium-altitude unmanned system that can be deployed for surveillance and reconnaissance missions. The first contract to build the Predator drone was handed to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in 1994.
Predator UAVs have been operational in Bosnia since 1995 in support of NATO and US operations and as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom, flying more than 500,000 flight hours on over 50,000 flights.
After September 11, 2001, the US embarked on its latest war, the War on Terror. The CIA, which for years had been lobbying to arm the Predator, was finally given permission. Consequently, the RQ-1 Predator was armed with Hellfire missiles once this was done it became the MQ-01A Predator. One of the first killings on the war on terror was the terrible slaughter at Zhawar Kili.
On the 4th of February 2002, CIA officials had gathered information that Osama Bin Laden was hiding in the caves of the Patika province in Afghanistan. This information had not been verified, and when asked about it later, officials bluntly replied, “A decision was made to fire the Hellfire missile. It was fired.”
The Ethical Question of Drone Policy
A few days after the airstrikes, local journalists determined that those killed were, in fact, scrap metal foragers who were out scavenging. This incident can be used to highlight how far we have come since 1849.
Operators can now sit in a secure room and make decisions that determine whether people live or die, isolated from the damage and death. In normal hand to hand combat, human nature takes over, and soldiers have been known to show mercy to their foes if circumstances allow them to do so.
In Pakistan alone, Amnesty International claims that there could have been at 958 civilians killed by drone strikes. More recently, there has been a massive outcry against the “double-tap” policy adopted by CIA operators. Essentially, targeted areas are attacked twice, once to kill militants and a second time to prevent any form of search and rescue. The result is total devastation.
One cannot deny that combat UAVs can be used for a significant number of defensive purposes. However, the fact remains that with the proliferation of these weapons, it is getting easier and easier for humans to kill each other. The “human aspect” of even warfare is fading, and no one is being held accountable.
~ Written by Rahul Alvares for AeroMIT