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Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution

Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution by Richard Whittle. Henry Holt and Co., 2014, 368 pp.

Richard Whittle's new book Predator is worth reading for both skeptics of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) and advocates of this technology. Predator traces the RPA's journey from experimental technology demonstrations in the 1970s to the modern battlefields in the war on terror. The operational successes and failures he describes say as much about the organizational dynamics in government as the technological genius of the system's designers.

Told from the point of view of its participants, Predator describes the technological innovations that made RPA operations such a vital aspect of American airpower today. Starting with the chief engineer and visionary, Abe Karem, the book describes how a few dedicated pioneers overcame a myriad of technological and organizational challenges. Many of the solutions they developed were imperfect, and the system today is burdened by the legacy of several earlier technological shortcuts, particularly in human-machine interface. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that "Predator's biggest problem is political" (p. 118). Whittle shows how a few relentless innovators, facing staunch institutional resistance, overcame obstacles to meet a compelling mission need. Unfortunately, Whittle ends the story in 2003, before many of the political battles over RPAs had fully evolved, but his focus clearly remains on the story of innovation and determination that brought Predator to the battlefield.

Beyond the history of innovation it describes, this book vividly depicts the way organizational processes contorted to accommodate this new technology. From the failure to strike Osama bin Laden before 9/11 and the failed attack on Mullah Mohammed Omar in 2001 to the attack on Mohammed Atef in 2002, Whittle cuts through self-interested accounts from various participants in these events. He highlights the increasing dangers of centralized execution on the modern battlefield with examples of strategic leaders micromanaging events via real-time video. By describing the various combinations of hand wringing and conflicting guidance, Whittle also details how the lack of clear authorities bred complacency in some individuals and a tendency to overcentralize authority in others.

It might be tempting to dismiss the command failures detailed in this book as isolated events or assume that any interagency effort requires this type of contorted supervisory structure. While worldwide networking of the Predator's video feed gives strategic leaders visibility of the battlefield from an unprecedented distance, the temptation and the danger of myopia are nothing new. One does not need the wisdom of Napoleon to recognize that strategic leaders can control the fine details of a battle only by abandoning their broader perspective. The leaders in this story failed to establish appropriate lines of authority and responsibility--essential to effective delegation. Whittle's narrative provides a valuable addition to the historical examples of the principle of war known as unity of command. In this case, senior leaders failed to adapt to this new technology--a failure that should inform the ongoing debate about the proper command structure for RPAs.

The proliferation of RPA technology in the last two decades has far exceeded the expectations of even its most zealous advocates when the US Air Force assumed control of the mission in 1995. Predator offers valuable lessons for anyone who claims or aspires to be a part of the decision-making process in the application of military power. This hard-hitting story of innovation shows how technology brings out the best and worst in the American government and its military.

Lt Col Cameron S. Pringle, USAF
US Naval War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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