The history of the Predator, the drone that changed the world (Q&A)

Longtime Pentagon correspondent Richard Whittle investigated the unmanned aircraft that gave the military the ability to attack targets from the other side of the world. He talked to CNET about the drone.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

A Predator drone in action. General Atomics

These days, the word drone is used to refer to just about any kind of remote-controlled, unmanned aircraft. That could mean a consumer-grade quadcopter or a slightly more advanced octocopter.

But in military parlance, drone has a more austere connotation. In the US, at least, the term refers to the Predator, a combat-proven vehicle that can fly at altitudes of up to 25,000 feet for as long as 40 hours.

Richard Whittle Faye Ross

The Predator is no great flying machine -- it can easily be overtaken or shot down by anyone with the ability to get close to it. But it offered its controllers the opportunity to surveil, or attack, a target on the other side of the world with no danger to an American military asset other than the unmanned drone itself. Today, some law enforcement agencies, such as US Customs and Border Protection, have access to this type of drone and are using it for, among other things, drug interdiction.

After writing a book on the V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor military aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter, longtime Pentagon correspondent Richard Whittle found himself wondering what to write about next. "I'm not sure," Whittle told his agent, who'd asked about his plans, "but these unmanned aerial vehicles look interesting."

Now Whittle has published the first comprehensive book on the history of the Predator and the "secret origins of the drone revolution." Earlier this week, he shared his thoughts on the program with CNET.

Q: Air & Space Magazine said the Predator was one of 10 aircraft that changed the world. How so?
Richard Whittle: In 2001, the Predator became the first weapon in history whose operators could use it to stalk and kill a single individual on the other side of the planet much the way a sniper does, and with total invulnerability. The Predator's phenomenal flight endurance also made it a powerful new form of overhead intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance -- a drone that can find and shine a laser beam on targets for manned aircraft, eavesdrop on enemy communications, provide troops on the ground warning of enemy movements and give commanders an overhead view of the battlefield.

Before the Predator, drones were at best a niche technology, unreliable and largely unconnected to anyone other than their operators. The new capabilities the Predator offered changed the way military people thought about unmanned aircraft, resulting in a drone revolution that has changed the way we wage war, altered the military, altered the CIA, reshaped the defense and aviation industries and is spreading in the civilian world faster than the Federal Aviation Administration can govern it.

This weapon has a very unusual origin story. It wasn't created by the military-industrial complex, was it? In summary, how did it come to be?
Whittle: The Predator was invented and transformed into a world-changing technology by a cast of characters no novelist could conjure up -- iconoclasts, for the most part, who had vision. They include a former Israeli aeronautical engineer who turned his Los Angeles garage into a drone laboratory, two daring entrepreneur brothers who bought his ideas when he couldn't sell them to the military, a couple of fighter pilots who saw the potential of planes with no pilots and forced them on the Air Force, a Pentagon operator named Snake, and others. In the beginning, like the first personal computers, the Predator was a new technology some people found interesting but most weren't sure how to exploit. Over time, a few innovators devised refinements -- new software, new hardware, new communications architectures -- that transformed the personal computer from a novelty into a necessity. Much the same thing happened with the Predator.

It sounds like eventually, there was a turf battle over the Predator between the military services. How did that play out?
Whittle: The iconoclasts who saw promise in the Predator in its early days included the Air Force chief of staff at the time, General Ronald Fogleman, who had flown fighter aircraft in dangerous reconnaissance missions during the Vietnam War with a unit called the Misty Fast FACs (Forward air controllers, fliers who helped direct fire so it wouldn't hit friendly troops). The Predator was initially a joint program managed by the Navy, with the Army chosen to fly the drone, at times using Air Force pilots. Fogleman decided the Air Force was the rightful home of the Predator, since it was an aircraft that flew from and landed on runways. With help from an Air Force colonel known as Snake -- a bureaucratic operator of the first order -- and allies on Capitol Hill, Fogleman persuaded Defense Department leaders to transfer sole control of the Predator to the Air Force. His Capitol Hill allies, meanwhile, saw to it that within the Air Force, a secretive technology shop called Big Safari took charge of improving the Predator.

What are the Predator's biggest achievements as a military tool?
Whittle: Before it was armed, an Air Force crew flying an unarmed Predator for the CIA -- an operation detailed in my book -- found Osama bin Laden. After it was armed, in the early weeks of the war in Afghanistan, the Predator played a key role in a combined operation with F-15E fighter bombers that killed Al Qaeda's third-ranking leader and military commander, Mohammed Atef. The Predator also helped save a group of Army Rangers during the famous battle of Roberts Ridge, in Afghanistan. But its biggest achievement was in changing the way people think about unmanned aircraft and the way the military uses them. At the time the Predator launched the first intercontinental drone strike, the military had 290 drones of three types. The US military now owns more than 8,000 drones of 14 types, and unmanned aircraft -- once an afterthought at best -- are an integral part of military operations.

How much danger is there of bad actors/our enemies getting a Predator?
Whittle: The Predator is no longer made, though General Atomics builds larger derivatives. The key to imitating the Predator, however, isn't cost or the sophistication of the air vehicle but the infrastructure and communications architecture required to operate them the way the US does. Only a couple of nations would be capable of duplicating the latter, and even a Predator is quite easy to shoot down if an adversary has the means. In Afghanistan, Iraq and other places that it's been used since it was armed, the adversaries generally lacked air defenses adequate to the task. One Air Force general told me the easiest way to shoot down a Predator is to fly next to it in a helicopter armed with a .12-gauge shotgun.

Will we ever see someone like the Middle Eastern terrorist groups ISIS or Hezbollah flying anything this sophisticated?
Whittle: It's hard to imagine groups such as those being able to fly drones of the Predator's sophistication, and certainly not with its reach. The greater drone threat to the United States might be small radio-controlled models carrying explosives, but in that case, the amount of explosives and the level of accuracy would make them at best a terror weapon.

What are the most sophisticated drones that others have?
Whittle: That's difficult to say, as claims made by nations such as China or Iran or Russia for their drones are hard to verify.

What is your take on the morality of the Predator as a weapon -- letting people in Florida attack someone on the other side of the world without putting themselves at risk?
Whittle: My book is the story of the Predator and how the drone revolution began, not a polemic or an assessment of moral questions. Fairness is a concern in sports, but not in war. If you accept the morality of going to war in the first place, the task then becomes to win at the least loss to your own side. That's why military leaders often say they aren't interested in a fair fight -- in fact, just the opposite. Personally, I see nothing immoral about protecting your own people in warfare as much as you can.

What about the policy argument about using Predators to spy on American soil. Where do you come down on that one?
Whittle: The potential loss of privacy is only one of many issues the drone revolution raises. When the automobile was invented, we needed new roads and new traffic laws to ensure safe use of that new technology. When the airplane was invented, we needed new airports and a Federal Aviation Administration and air traffic control regulations. Yet another new technology is now changing aviation and potentially society -- a technology that isn't going away but will only grow more sophisticated. We as a society need to decide how to regulate drones to make sure our leaders use them legally and wisely, our skies remain safe, our liberty remains secure and we benefit from all the good things drones can do for us, which are many.

Correction (Saturday, 7:08 p.m. PT): The original photo at the top of this story was a MQ-9 Reaper, not a Predator.