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BOUND TO PLEASE / The story of a flying shield that became a flying sword

The Japan News

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff Writer Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution

By Richard Whittle

Henry Holt, 353pp

A small aircraft with no one aboard flies high above Afghanistan or Pakistan or Yemen. A camera in its nose scans the ground below, searching for a particular person whom certain U.S. officials believe to be a terrorist.

When that person is in sight, an operator sitting at a desk on the other side of the world pulls a trigger, and the drone sends a missile streaking toward the ground. Seconds later, the targeted person is dead — along with anyone standing nearby.

According to Richard Whittle’s book “Predator,” this scenario played out about 50 times under the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, and has been repeated more than 400 times under his successor Barack Obama. The Predator drone is a hair-raisingly awesome weapon that has been in the news in recent years in part because its use, especially in countries with which the United States is not at war, raises serious moral and political issues.

The book touches on such controversy in its final pages, but its main value to readers is as a technological history. Whittle, an aviation scholar who spent 22 years as a Pentagon and Washington correspondent for The Dallas Morning News, explains just what a Predator is, and how it came to exist in the first place.

“It begins with a boy in Baghdad,” Whittle writes with a flourish. The boy was Abraham Karem, born in 1937 to a family of Iraqi Jews who fled to Israel after a 1941 pogrom in their native country. In Israel, Karem became an engineer who designed his first military drone as a decoy to protect Israeli aircraft after they were devastated in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Egypt and Syria invaded Israel.

A key theme of the story Whittle tells is that for most of their history, drones were used for defense rather than offense — or at least were seen as a way of reducing casualties.

Even when American businessman Neal Blue imagined in the 1980s that an explosives-laden drone equipped with then brandnew GPS technology could function as “a poor man’s cruise missile,” he saw it as a way of saving lives. His wife’s family had suffered through carpet bombing in Germany in World War II, and Blue thought refinements in precision bombing could make such widespread horror a thing of the past.

Blue and his brother set up a company to develop drones. Meanwhile, Kamen had moved to the United States and also set up a drone firm. The two eventually became one company that sold Predator drones to the U.S. military.

A secondary theme in the book is the military’s penchant for bureaucracy. When engineers “proposed gluing two-inch-by-two-inch blocks of half-inch-thick plywood inside the wheel wells of early model Predators to stop the landing gear wheels from chafing the fuselage’s composite walls, [the U.S. Air Force] took four months to approve the ‘modification.’”

But the air force liked what it finally got. In the Balkans in the 1990s, the Predator’s eyes helped U.S. pilots find their targets with the accuracy Blue had hoped for. And in Afghanistan in the 2000s, the drones began carrying weapons of their own.

The rest is news.

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