Thursday, June 29, 2017

Review: Evolution of drones & the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki

Review of: Hunter Killer: Inside America’s Unmanned Air War
Author: T. Mark McCurley, with Kevin Maurer
Publisher: Dutton
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: B

Mark McCurley didn’t join the U.S. Air Force to fly a Predator. But more than 10 years into his military career, with assignment after assignment to noncombat units, he hated the thought of retirement without ever seeing combat. The only combat opening available to him in 2003: the RQ-1 Predator, aka a drone, or in more polite parlance, a Remotely Piloted Aircraft.

“Mark, are you sure you want this,” his squadron commander asked.

“A crusty, old-school fighter pilot,” McCurley writes in Hunter Killer: Inside America’s Unmanned Air War, “he shared the same belief as the rest of the Air Force, and even myself. Predators were for chumps.”

But it was McCurley’s last chance to “get into the fight,” and he took it. Neither he nor most of the rest of the Air Force – make that, any of the Armed Forces – thought it was a good idea. Little did they realize that the RPAs – Predators and their many offspring, large and small – would change the face of warfare. Even to one of the most controversial actions of the decade, the killing of an American-born proponent of terrorism, Anwar al-Awlaki.

The Awlaki mission brackets McCurley’s volume. But it was still nearly a decade in the future when McCurley had his first sight of a Predator, impressive only in its simplicity.

“The thin composite body felt like dry paper. Its anemic landing gear was just springs that flexed with the weight of the aircraft.” But it could fly 20 hours with refueling at altitudes of up to 25,000 feet, and deliver high-resolution imagery. Best of all, for a military program feeling the effects of the post-Cold War slowdown, Predators were comparatively cheap – their cost a tiny fraction of the price of the Air Force’s most advanced stealth fighter.

If they didn’t look much like fighter planes, flying them didn’t feel anything like flying any aircraft McCurley had ever dealt with. Flown from a site on the ground, there was no motion feel. Pilots also had to cope with delays between the commands they gave and the aircraft’s response, which varied with the distance between location of the pilot and the Predator, sometimes half a world away from each other.

The delay problem became more formidable once Predators and their offspring became armed, especially when the target was moving rapidly. Such as, for instance, the crew-cab sized trucks Awlaki habitually used.

McCurley, however, had a plan to overcome the difficulty of a moving shot.

By the time Awlaki was being tracked, McCurley had moved from piloting Predators to launching them. Although piloting could be done from sites far removed physically from the aircraft, launching them had to be done the old-fashioned way – from the ground. And McCurley moved from air-conditioned sites in the U.S. to bases in the Middle East, and at last to the U.S.’s Middle Eastern airbase in Qatar to Djibouti, located on the horn of East Africa.

It was the base from which the attack on Awlaki would be launched in mid-September 2011. From his station, McCurley watched as RPAs closed in on two trucks carrying Awlaki and his men down a highway in Yemen. “Had he looked up,” McCurley writes, “it would have been entirely possible that he would have seen the aircraft. . . ”

(Because of the known difficulty in hitting fast-moving targets, journalist Scott Shane believed, and reported in his more detailed account of the long hunt for Awlaki, Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President, and the Rise of the Drone, that the hit took place while the trucks were parked. Shane's book was published prior to McCurley's, and probably without access to the video coverage McCurley cites.)

Considering that Hunter Killer covers nearly 10 years of McCurley’s experience with the Predator and related RPAs, some compression of narrative is understandable. However, I would have appreciated a few dates to keep me on track of the passing time. And though I sympathize with McCurley’s accounts of his struggles with bureaucracy, I’m not sure non-Air Force personnel (or anyone younger than I am) will catch his otherwise delightful reference to Joseph Heller’s satirical novel, Catch 22

And I’m surprised that, in McCurley’s discussion of things that can terribly wrong in RPA warfare, he failed to mention a particularly horrifying example, the apparently egregious killing of Awlaki’s teenage son shortly after the father’s death. Still, Hunter Killer remains an intriguing read about the past and future of RPAs, written from the standpoint of a man who’s known them so well.

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