The first use of modern drones came during the Vietnam War, when the Pentagon tested unmanned aerial vehicles for what the military called ISR: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “Vietnam was decisive to the development of drones as the perfect tools to perform dangerous missions without the risk of losing a pilot,” says aviation historian David Cenciotti. By the war’s end, drones had flown some 3,500 recon missions in Vietnam. The Air Force also developed two attack drones – the BGM-34A and BGM-34B Firebee – but never used them in combat: The sensors weren’t yet capable of identifying and hitting camouflaged targets with the accuracy the military needed.
In the years after Vietnam, many of the technological advances on drones were made by Israel, which has used them to monitor the Gaza Strip and carry out targeted assassinations. During the 1980s, the Israeli air force sold several of its models to the Pentagon, including a drone called the Pioneer. The Pioneer, which could be launched from naval vessels or from military bases, had a flight range of 115 miles. The Americans quickly put it to use during the First Gulf War: In one of the more absurd moments of the conflict, a group of Iraqi soldiers surrendered to a Pioneer, waving white bedsheets and T-shirts at the drone as it circled overhead. The Pioneer would eventually be used in more than 300 missions in the Persian Gulf, and would later be deployed in efforts to stabilize Haiti and the Balkans during the 1990s.
By 2000, the Pentagon was pushing for a massive expansion of the drone program, hoping to make a third of all U.S. aircraft unmanned by 2010. But it was the War on Terror that finally enabled the military to weaponize drones, giving them the capability to take out designated targets. The first major success of killer drones was a Predator strike on a convoy in 2002, which assassinated the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen. By 2006, the Pentagon had upped its goal, aiming to convert 45 percent of its “deep-strike” aircraft into drones. “Before drones, the way you went after terrorists was you sent your troops,” says Goure. “You sent your Navy, you sent your Marines, like Reagan going after Qaddafi in the Eighties. You bombed their camp. Now you have drones that can be operated by the military or the CIA from thousands of miles away.”
The low cost and lethal convenience of drones – death by remote control – have made them a must-have item for advanced military powers and tin-pot despots alike. The global market for unmanned aerial vehicles is now $6 billion a year, with more than 50 countries moving to acquire drones. Over the past decade, the military has tested a wide variety of unmanned aircraft – from microdrones that run on tiny batteries to those with 200-foot wingspans, powered by jet fuel or solar energy. The drones used in Iraq and Afghanistan – the Predator and the Reaper – look like large model planes and cost $13 million apiece. A drone the size of a 727, the Global Hawk, was used after the tsunami in Japan and the earthquake in Haiti to provide rescue operations with a bird’s-eye view of the disasters. One of the largest drones in development today is the SolarEagle, designed by Boeing and DARPA, the experimental research wing of the Defense Department. With a wingspan of more than 400 feet, the SolarEagle will be able to stay in the air for five years at a time, essentially replacing surveillance satellites, which are costly to put into orbit.