A Brief Personal History of the UAV

In a recent email from a friend of mine, she had asked me about “alternative uses” of drones aside from kinetic strikes. I typed up a quick response to her that focuses on my experience with UAVs and some narrative in response to how the public generally only knows UAVs as “Drones” and only knows them as weapons platforms:


My recommendation is to first read this article: http://www.airspacemag.com/flight-today/The-Man-Who-Invented-the-Predator-198846671.html

The irony is the man cited with inventing the famed Predator was an Arab born in Iraq who lived in Israel. To provide some more personal context to the modern history of UAVs I can annotate some of my own historical relationship for you.

In 2000 when I went through Advanced Individual Training at the Army Intelligence training center in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, I attended a sort of expose of Military Technology. One of the things I saw and was briefed on was this huge model airplane looking thing that I had no idea what it was. The senior soldier explained to me that it was a UAV or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. This was my first introduction with UAVs. It was explained to me that it was used for Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR).

While in Korea I participated in a Simulated Training Exercise (STX) where my task, was to fulfill the position of UAV Operator. They did not have legitimate UAV Operators, so they took us Tactical ISR operators and used us to fill the positions. Now this was a simulated training exercise so the UAV was not real, it was more of a Flight Simulator type of thing. Basically the monitor fed a digital video stream of the digital terrain (just like a video game). The entire purpose of the exercise for the UAV element, was to conduct aerial recon of the battlefield and report up SALT (Size, Activity, Location, Time) reports that consisted of basically “Recon reports 3 tanks at grid coordinate WV12345678, heading eastbound at 2100hrs”. So this is mid-2001 (pre-9-11) and the purpose of UAVs did not even include – at least in this case) a weapons platform capacity.

About a year later, after a tour in Korea, I returned to Fort Huachuca as a Cadre member, assisting in training Military Intelligence officers. This time frame was 2002-2003 (I left a couple days before the invasion of Iraq) and during this period they had begun training UAV Operators at Fort Huachuca as what I believe was the initial training phases for the real push out of UAV Operators. As UAV was picking up a lot during this time, my job which was conducting tactical ISR, was expected to be replaced by UAV (in the end, circa, 2005-2006, it was).

By spring 2004 I arrived in Iraq in the Sunni Triangle outside of Baqubah, Diyala Province, where I was running intelligence source operations on a small CI/HUMINT Team. My colleagues who were still in the Tactical ISR unit were no longer executing their missions that they were trained for, and instead they were running convoy security. Replacing the intelligence the ISR team would have provided to combatant commanders on the ground, UAV live feeds, streaming to large flat screen plasmas in the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) on base were used instead.

During 2004 my Intelligence unit received some of the first UAV Operator school graduates from Fort Huachuca. They operated brigade level UAVs assets in Diyala Province. These UAVs, were utilized for ISR purposes and they were not armed. I have zero recollection of armed UAVs even being used in Iraq at that time actually. Even today in Afghanistan the bulk of the UAV assets utilized in theater are not used as weapons platforms. This in of itself is why I am highly opposed to even using the term
drone” as it retains pejorative connotations that should not exist.

This vital technology is a platform for many assets, weaponization being only one of them. I encourage critics to consider the possibility of UAV technology being utilized in many additional ways. Some uses off the top of my head include:

  • Monitoring of Internally Displaced People
  • Monitoring of Refugee movements
  • Monitoring of events for crisis management
  • Search & Rescue in-land
  • Search & Rescue off-shore
  • Natural Disaster management
  • Border Security Operations

It is critical to understand that empirically, UAVs in the past, present & future were not and are not primarily utilized as a weapons platform. Also, there are a ridiculous number of uses in non-combat environments. For example the US Military has provided UAV resources to Japan during the tsunami incident. There have been a multitude of other implementations of UAV technology around the world and in recent years. It important to take note that the hyperbole in the media of “Armed Drones”; is the exception not the rule. Letting UAV technology be sidelined by a politicized narrative is a grave danger to the world over all.

One comment

  1. Wolfsong · June 19, 2013

    “Drone” also implies autonomous, predetermined behavior, when in fact, the UAVs are under active control of a human throughout the mission. The word is so encoded in media and lay persons we are stuck with it, but it is not accurate. In the Air Force, we call them “Remotely Piloted Aircraft” to emphasis that they are indeed actively piloted, not launched and forgotten (whether in ISR or weapon configuration).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s