/ Published July 21, 2021
Never Mind, We’ll Do It Ourselves: The Inside Story of How a Team of Renegades Broke Rules, Shattered Barriers, and Launched a Drone Warfare Revolution by Alec Bierbauer, Mark Cooter, and Michael Marks. Skyhorse Publishing, 2021. 326 pp.
It was the evening of 7 October 2001 when the phrase, “Who the f*** did that?” was uttered in response—in anger and not praise—to the first Hellfire missile strike from a Predator drone. Lieutenant General Charles “Chuck” Wald, USAF, who at the time was charged with coordinating all aspects of the nascent air war over Afghanistan as Operation Enduring Freedom kicked off, was incredulous at not knowing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was operating armed drones in “his” airspace without his knowledge. And this first strike was a botched effort to kill Taliban Supreme Commander Mullah Mohammed Omar. Thus, the era of armed unmanned warfare began.
Never Mind, We’ll Do It Ourselves is the true inside story of how a handful of self-proclaimed “renegades” broke barriers and rules that ushered in the advent of armed drone warfare. One coauthor, Col Mark Cooter, USAF, retired, was a career intelligence officer with distinguished service and experience in Operation Desert Storm, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. As a Predator squadron operations officer, he was on the leading edge of Predator programs at near inception—both in the military Joint community and with the CIA. Another coauthor, Alec Bierbauer, spent most of his career conducting counterterrorism and counterintelligence operations with the CIA in Bosnia, Yemen, and Afghanistan among others. He was the point man for the CIA’s Predator program, which is how he came to meet and work with Cooter. The third coauthor, Michael Marks, has a long history, mostly with special operations and intelligence work, and has written numerous books of acclaim. He was trusted with penning this volume and “bringing the stories to life” as characterized by Cooter in the book. Marks noted that this was the most complex book he had ever helped write because of the extensive security clearance process required to ensure it remained unclassified for a mass audience.
Despite what we may have read or known about armed drone operations and their use in modern warfare, not much has been known about the “who” until now. Years before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, surveillance drone operations got off the ground in Bosnia in small measure before then being employed overhead Tarnak Farms—a former Afghan training camp near Kandahar that also served as the base of operations for Osama bin Laden and his followers from 1998-2001. This is also the place where it is thought the 9/11 aircraft hijackers trained. Between 2000-01, unarmed Predators captured almost four and a half hours of passive overhead surveillance of bin Laden. As the Predator program evolved from an observation platform to an offensive standoff killing machine, the timing of the unfortunate 9/11 attacks served as an accelerating catalyst already undergoing transformation.
Never Mind is organized chronologically from the second chapter onward (the first chapter opens with the October 2001 first strike noted above) beginning in January 2000 with alternating first-person chapters from Bierbauer and Marks. Each perspective complements the other and weaves a more complete contextual profile of the evolution of the armed Predator operations based upon their own organizational and cultural upbringing in the USAF and CIA, respectively. Readers are treated to what casual observers may not otherwise appreciate and that is, in my view, one of the most appealing features of this story—the bureaucratic and technological hurdles required to traverse, bring about, and then convince numerous bureaucracies to stand behind and take the risk in employing this tremendous capability.
As with most circumstances encountering something unfamiliar with no previous frame of reference, the idea of arming drones to the establishment was met with fierce skepticism, let alone opposition, by those operators and platforms that had been doing the shooting and killing at the time. Many said the idea and investment in experimenting and improving the ability of the spindly drone to launch a supersonic weapon was a big waste of money fraught with failure and wasted resources. And, like many new ideas, there were initial failures; each led to a new lesson and improvement made to further refine procedures and techniques while also mitigating the extent of future failures. For example, a couple of the early experimental obstacles that had to be overcome were ensuring that launching a Hellfire missile off the Predator wing would not rip the said wing off and cause the loss of the asset and missile; another was ensuring the Hellfire could operate at the higher altitudes and colder temperatures that had previously not been demonstrated while attached to the Predator wing. Both challenges were overcome as were all the others. Naysayers of conventional air-to-ground strike platforms also had to be swayed, convinced, and become advocates of the program if it were to bureaucratically succeed—and that happened in time, too. The idea of ‘split remote operations’ was also born during the age of full-coverage global positioning satellite constellations where the physical Predators could be operated near the point of attack while the ground station and operators could employ them from the other side of the world—a concept we take for granted today.
History was made by the team led by Bierbauer and Marks. They were modern-day “Wright Brothers” in this regard, deftly navigating the birth and early years of the armed drone program. The stories of the other players also contributed greatly to the success and positive outcomes of this program. I have necessarily left them out of this review so that you, as the reader, can experience this background first-hand. However, one contributor deserves mention as being pivotal, and that is then-Captain Ginger (now Colonel Ginger Wallace, USAF, retired). Cooter, also a career intelligence officer, relied on her expertise every step of the way. I came to know Ginger while she was the 488th Intelligence Squadron commander at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, UK, while I was the 100th Air Refueling Wing and installation commander there. She is the real deal!
This book adds to the airpower history, innovation, and ingenuity for which Airmen and airpower are known. A recommended read for all who wish to understand the people and processes required to bring such a force-multiplying capability to fruition that is here to stay for many years to come.
Brigadier General Chad T. Manske, USAF, Retired
"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."