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Predator: The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan; A Pilot's Story

Predator: The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan; A Pilot’s Story by Matt J. Martin with Charles W. Sasser. Zenith Press, 2010, 320 pp.

On the most basic level, Predator is an exploration and illumination of the world of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) through the lens of Lt Col Matt Martin’s personal experience. He is particularly well suited to write a book about the MQ-1 Predator, having flown and supervised hundreds, if not thousands, of combat sorties with this system in both Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, sometimes flying in both wars on the same day before going home to help his kids with their homework. “Professor” Martin, as his family sometimes calls him, uses his penchant for history and philosophy to eloquently tie intelligence operations and the role of RPAs into the broader context of the two wars.

The author shares much more than his combat experience with the reader, divulging personal struggles with the ethics of both remote combat and war in general. Martin has a knack for storytelling, and his true tales—told with conviction and packed with excitement, emotion, and well-developed characters—cover various roles and missions. He devotes much time to describing both friend and foe in depth. Indeed, the book reads more like a novel or collection of short stories than a dry journalistic recounting of events. I particularly valued the brief historical insights into Sunni-Shiite tensions and the description of the evolution of Iraq and Afghanistan. Martin provides abbreviated dossiers on Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, explaining how they came to power and how their cultural and religious background shaped their despotic reigns. Although he does not source his information completely, it seems consistent with reports found in the mainstream media.

The author makes a point of addressing the myriad public misconceptions about so-called drones, arguing that these vehicles are in no way autonomous or unmanned. On the contrary, the operators simply fly them from a distance. RPA pilots and sensor operators get a much more detailed and persistent view of the damage they reap with their munitions, compared to pilots of faster platforms with less persistence. He asserts that for a given strike mission, firing a precision-guided Hellfire from a Predator causes far less damage than do heavier weapons dropped from fighters. The aircraft’s low speed and high-fidelity optics also allow one to conduct battle damage assessment almost immediately. Martin draws on numerous, convincing anecdotes from his experience to advocate the employment of RPAs in tactical strike and close air support missions in addition to the vetted intelligence missions for which they were designed.

The author’s perspective is certainly colored by his flying experience. A systems engineer, I expected to read more about some of the known problems with the MQ-1B system, especially those related to manpower, fatigue, and our nation’s unquenchable thirst for RPA capabilities. The book briefly mentions some of the ergonomic issues with the controls and display system but largely ignores such matters. Further, although it examines the history of the RPA in combat, it fails to mention that, because of mission needs, the Air Force pulled the MQ-1B out of development before it reached full maturity.

I found Predator an exciting and engaging read that offered insights I didn’t glean from formal interviews with other RPA pilots during my research on those platforms and human systems integration. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about RPAs and could benefit from firsthand accounts about flying them. People who speak out against the use of RPAs may find themselves challenged by Predator since it effectively argues for the proper employment of these aircraft.

1st Lt Travis J. Pond, USAF

Cape Canaveral AFS, Florida

"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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