Inside America’s Unmanned Air War
Mark McCurley and Kevin Maurer
Dutton, New York, 2016, 368 pages
Book Review published on: March 30, 2017
The book chronicles the establishment of the United States as the premier force using unmanned aircraft systems. The author describes the techniques and tactics of the remotely piloted vehicle (RPV) world in such a way that a non-Air Force person can understand. The book illustrates the culture change in the Air Force as a result of the RPV, the increasing roles and effectiveness of RPVs, and the mechanics of drone control for the layman.
Upon reading the text it becomes readily apparent that the authors were vested in the success of this new technology that matured during the “Global War on Terror” and continues to grow within the armed forces. First envisioned as a persistent sensor platform that would reduce the risk of capture or death of reconnaissance troops and special operators, the Predator was capable of operating in areas that precluded the employment of ground troops due to political backlash or extreme risk. The author goes to great lengths to describe a culture within the Air Force, in particular how it values fighter pilots and minimizes the contributions of RPV pilots. Due to the nature of our current conflicts notably lacking in glorious dogfights with a peer competitor, fighter pilots had no real wartime mission in the War on Terror. The initial cohort of RPV pilots were composed of the less motivated and skilled fighter pilots in a service that was struggling for relevance. Low-intensity conflict and the lack of large enemy formations meant that few bombers were being flown in combat. As the Predators and Reapers were placed in service, the attitude and culture of the Air Force appears to shift to one of acceptance of what was initially seen as a career ending path of service. RPV pilots were the ones racking up the kills.
Initially just a reconnaissance platform, the RPV, as many new technologies do, rapidly expanded capabilities to accommodate the needs of the warfighter. After the proof of concept for arming Predators with Hellfire missiles was completed, RPVs were employed striking stationary high-value targets with devastating results. All without risking the life of a pilot and a propaganda loss if he was captured. The reader is immersed into the technical details of the limitations of flying an aircraft from half a world away. The challenge of hitting a target, with built-in latency between user input on flight controls and execution of commands by the distant RPV are daunting. This “lag” between moving the flight controls at Creech Air Force Base and a corresponding movement of a drone flying in Pakistan trying to engage a target required a pilot with a different skill set. The success of the program highlights the fact that the United States was capable of reaching an enemy that was otherwise out of reach.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the description of the target engagement and approval process. The missions are described with an incredible amount of detail. This blow-by-blow interaction proved very interesting, as did the rules of engagement that the missions were constrained by. The author puts the reader inside the decision cycle of the pilots, analysts, and the command authority as they literally determine whether a target (person) will live or die. This detailed description highlights some of the idiocrasies of the ever-changing rules of engagement. I was comforted by the fact that even with full-motion video, political agreements, and “fog of war” there is a process that is followed and monitored. The reader comes to understand that each scenario is slightly different and requires careful analysis of all of the known factors, to arrive at the decision to, or not to, strike.
Book Review written by: Eric McGraw, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas