They may soon be delivering this book to you, but for now, writes Woodrow Wilson Center global fellow Whittle in this follow-up to his excellent The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey (2010), drones are anything but your friends.
Put a laser, a cannon and some Hellfire missiles into an unmanned aircraft, and you have a potent killing machine. The impulse to create the unmanned drone came from an Israeli lab in response to a quite specific problem: namely, Soviet rockets with multistage radars aimed at Israeli jets by Syrian and Egyptian fighters. The emergent need for a decoy aircraft that would look just like a full-scale jet to radar surveillance prompted inventor Abraham Karem to come up with an even better solution. Fast-forward four decades, and the drone has become commonplace, increasingly used by American forces after 9/11. Getting there is the subject of Whittle’s narrative, which soon lands on a second big problem—that unmanned aircraft are inherently less safe than piloted ones. In between, the author looks at the machinations of defense industry contractors and military procurement specialists to get the latest and greatest (and, it seems, most expensive) hardware into the air. There’s plenty of geekery befitting a Tom Clancy novel to keep readers entertained, with Whittle occasionally sliding into jargon-y prose: “After takeoff, the pilot was to fly the Predator to mission altitude, where a technician would bore-sight the MTS ball; next the pilot would put the Predator into an orbit, at which point the mission crew at the GCS at CIA headquarters would take control using the Ku-band satellite link.” Such longueurs aside, Whittle’s account comes to a pointed conclusion: Drone technology has already changed how we die, but what remains to be seen is how it “may change the way people live.”
For students of technological history and political wrangling alike, the book is endlessly interesting and full of implication.