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How Drones Changed Modern Warfare


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn. Drones have revolutionized the United States capabilities on the battlefield. The aircraft has characteristics of a sniper - silently killing before the target knows it's there. Predator drones - the first to be utilized in war - can stay in the air for dozens of hours without refueling. But like nearly everyone else, the U.S. military was slow to recognize the capability of drones. They were first developed in the 1970s, but weren't armed until just before 9/11. Air Force pilots considered flying the slow-moving drones the equivalent of desk duty.

RICHARD WHITTLE: People who arrived for the assignment were asked what did you screw up to get here?

GOODWYN: Richard Whittle is the author of new book - "Predator: The Secret Origins Of The Drone Evolution." He joined us for a conversation at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum with retired Lieutenant General David Deptula, who helped shape and run the drone program. As the general stood next to the first U.S. Predator drone to fire a shot in battle, he traced the history of how drones have changed modern warfare.

DAVID DEPTULA: So if you go back to World War II, it took weeks if not, generally, months to go out and conduct the reconnaissance, then do the analysis of the reconnaissance to then determine what it is you wanted to hit. So between the time you acquired a target and hit it - months. In Vietnam, it was weeks. In Desert Storm, it was days. Now you take what's nominally known as the targeting cycle and compress that cycle from months to weeks to days to now single-digit minutes.

GOODWYN: What year did that happen?

DEPTULA: It happened in 2001.

GOODWYN: 2001.

DEPTULA: ...With that aircraft that's right behind us.

GOODWYN: And this Predator we're looking at was involved in one of the most desperate battles of the Afghan war. Rick, tell the story of what happened at Roberts Ridge.

WHITTLE: Well, that's March 4, 2002, and the Predator played an important role that day. There's some army rangers who were on top of the ridge who were in a very tough firefight, nearly surrounded by al-Qaida. And in the course of that day the Predator put a hellfire missile into a bunker that took out a large number of the al-Qaida.

The Predator was able to direct fighter planes that came in and dropped the bombs on other al-Qaida. When night fell and rescuers were coming, the Predator had a laser light. And the sensor operator would shine that light down and talk to the rangers, and say hey, buddy, I'm still here, and then guided the rescue helicopter to the proper landing spot on the mountain. And according to the commander of the Predator unit out there at the CIA, I think he says that was our coming-out party.

GOODWYN: The Predator was kind of thought to be a great leap forward in the military's ability to accurately define a target and then destroy that target with precision. But over time in Pakistan and Yemen, in particular, the drones have earned a reputation for indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians. Can you talk to me about how the predator has been seen in different places by different cultures, and what its reputation is now?

DEPTULA: Let me jump in there and start off and let Rick finish it up. What you just described is an accurate description of how our adversaries would like the public to come away with - in terms of an impression of drones. It is absolutely 180 degrees opposite of reality.

GOODWYN: You agree that people in Pakistan and Yemen feel differently though.

DEPTULA: Sure because they've been lied to, deceived and have been subject to propaganda and information operations of the highest order because our adversaries cannot do anything about stopping what is in fact the U.S. most effective weapon against terrorism.

GOODWYN: But mistakes have been made - innocent civilians have been killed.

DEPTULA: Absolutely.

GOODWYN: Wedding parties mistaken for...

DEPTULA: ...But not to the same degree as soldiers on the ground create or artillery which has an average miss distance - 155mm piece, average miss distance is 800 feet.

GOODWYN: Rick, you want to weigh in on the issue of kind of the reputation and the...

WHITTLE: Yeah. I think that indiscriminate is the wrong word because this is a very discriminating weapon. Mistakes have been made. Innocent people have been killed, but, you know, the problem is you have to be sure that you're firing at the right target. And the intelligence that comes from the ground is important too. So you know, there have been instances I think where they mistook people for al-Qaida or Taliban who weren't.

GOODWYN: Last question for you. Now drones are being used by the border patrol. News organizations are buying them. The guy who lives next door can fly his drone and see through the sliding glass door of the 14th floor of an apartment. It's not just the battlefield. Drones are changing the space we live in.

WHITTLE: I think that the Predator opened the door to what is now a drone revolution because it changed the way people thought about unmanned aircraft. You know, previously it was just a niche technology in the military. So this technology is now exploding. And society has to come up with ways to cope with it, you know, just as when airplanes - when powered flight came along. We needed airports and the Federal Aviation Administration. And we needed to create regulations for air traffic control. We're at that stage now with this technology. This is a new era in aviation, and we as a society need to figure out how we're going to cope with it.

GOODWYN: General David Deptula and author Richard Whittle, thank you for joining us.

DEPTULA: Glad to be here.

WHITTLE: You bet. Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.