Air Force Retiring Predator, the Drone That Changed the World

March 6, 2018 Robert Levinson

This analysis was first available to Bloomberg Government subscribers.

The Predator, the unmanned aerial vehicle that redefined the U.S. military’s combat tactics while executing thousands of missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war zones over the last three decades, will be retired from Air Force inventory on March 9.

Developed for intelligence-gathering and surveillance in the Balkans in the 1990s, the ungainly planes carry sensors, cameras, lasers and other technology as part of system using remote ground controllers and satellite links. The addition of a Hellfire missile, bolted on and fired remotely, in 2001 transformed the device into one of the most effective — and lethal — tools in the Pentagon’s arsenal.

Once armed, the Predator, manufactured by San Diego-based General Atomics Technology Corp., could not just locate enemies, but kill them as well — all at the direction of a pilot who might be sitting thousands of miles away. The Air Force now operates dozens of drone combat air patrols around the clock, with as many as four UAVs in each patrol.

The Predator is “a game changer,” said Peter Singer, strategist at the New America Foundation and author of “Wired for War,” in an interview. “In histories of war and technology, it will be remembered in the same light as the Gatling gun or the first tank — not just for what it did, but how it was a taste of so much more to come.”

General Atomics built 320 Predators at a cost of about $2.8 billion. The company also makes the first-generation UAV’s bigger, younger brother, the MQ-9 Reaper, and the Air Force plans to buy 366 of these drones for about $13 billion.

The Army spent more than $5 billion on 34 variants of the aircraft known as the “Gray Eagle” that will still be flying.


The use of armed drones has not been without controversy. Although UAVs allow for more precise targeting than conventional weapons, civilians are sometimes killed in drone strikes. Critics have challenged the use of armed UAVs on legal, ethical and policy grounds.

NPR reports that in 473 air strikes conducted by unmanned planes from 2009 through 2015, 2,372 to 2,581 combatants were killed along with 64 to 116 noncombatants, according to data released by the Obama administration.

Unarmed Predators also are used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to search for drug smugglers and immigrants crossing illegally from Mexico into the U.S.

Surprise Start

The Predator’s role in transforming the way warfare is conducted began with a surprise.

On the night of Oct. 7, 2001, then-Lt. General Charles Wald was coordinating the air war in Afghanistan from the Combined Air Operations Center in Saudi Arabia. U.S. aircraft flew dozens of combat sorties that night in support of Special Operations forces and thousands of American, Afghan, and coalition troops. One aircraft, a drone with tail number 3034, was also operating in the theater, but was not under Wald’s control.

Wald dispatched two Navy F-18s to drop 1,000 pound bombs on what was believed to be Taliban Leader Mullah Omar’s facility, when suddenly he heard “You are cleared to fire” over the communications network. Wald watched in amazement as a truck outside the facility was destroyed in a fireball.

In an interview, Wald said he turned at that moment to his deputy and exclaimed, “Who the (expletive) did that?” He later learned that the CIA had used a modified Predator in the strike.

Though the attack failed, it heralded the dawn of a new age of drone warfare.

“It was something like the launch of the first supersonic aircraft or some other aviation milestone,” Wald said in an interview. “It was seminal.”

The Predator had its origins in the mind of engineer Abe Karem, known as the “Moses of modern drones.” Karem was born in Israel and got his start in then-Israel Aircraft Industries, now named Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd., one of the world’s leading drone manufacturers.

Though originally developed as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform and used extensively in the Balkans, by February 2001 a missile had been strapped on and fired from the drone. The Predator could not only help find the enemy, but it could kill him as well, at the direction of a pilot who might be sitting in a trailer a continent away.

Everything Changed

It would be difficult to overstate the changes in warfare that were ushered in by the little remote-controlled plane on that October night in 2001, according to Wald.

Military thinkers around the world are forecasting a future age of warfare with both excitement and trepidation. Robots and other unmanned systems may do the up-close killing (and dying) while most of the soldiers in the fight are far behind the front lines. The looming question now is how much autonomy will these systems have, and how much in the loop does the human have to be before the robot is allowed to kill?

Though Wald was a bit unimpressed with the Predator when he first saw it — he likens its sound to a washing machine — he recognizes what it means. Asked if he and Jumper and the other fighter pilots that helped bring the Predator to life realized that they probably would be ensuring that their children or at least grandchildren would never get to fly the amazing machines they had, Wald has no remorse.

Wald believes that we always must look for ways to move warriors back from the front lines, out of harm’s way and the era of drone warfare is simply the next step in the evolution of warfare that probably goes back to at least the English longbow men at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

While the Predator may be hanging up its wings, its legacy lives on.

Tail No. 3034 now hangs in the Smithsonian, but other Predators have different destinies. Some will undoubtedly be cannibalized for parts to support the Army’s Gray Eagles. Wald hopes many will be sold to allies for their use.

‘Age of Robotic War’

And of course some will wind up parked in the Arizona desert, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in what is commonly referred to as the aircraft boneyard. The Predators there will take their place alongside other planes that have made aviation history but few of those, even with some of their renowned pilots, will have had the impact that this one had.

“The Predator drone forever changed warfare,” said Paul Scharre, director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “It took killing from a distance to a new level never before seen in war, and ushered in the start of a new age of robotic war.”

(Robert Levinson is a senior defense analyst with Bloomberg Government.)

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