Book Review – Predator

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

When the American military wants a new weapon system, it follows an elaborate process. Sometimes the process succeeds brilliantly, producing world-class weapons such as the F-15 Eagle fighter and the M1 Abrams tank. Sometime the process fails, the most notorious recent example being the F-22 Raptor fighter which was spectacularly capable but too expensive to purchase in sufficient quantities. But what the system almost never produces is true innovation. It may sound odd to describe something stuffed with leading edge technology like the F-22 Raptor as not innovative. But a P-51 Mustang pilot in 1944, upon seeing an F-22, might be baffled and amazed by the features and performance of the F-22 yet would instantly understand it role and mission. The F-22 is essentially a vastly better P-51.

True innovation in military technology tends to come from outside the mainstream acquisition system, and there is no better example of that than what is variously called the Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (PRA) or simply drone. The American military has a long history with this class of aircraft, starting with “aerial torpedoes” (rudimentary ground-launched cruise missiles tested but not used during World War I) and target drones that were essentially large versions of the radio-controlled airplanes flown by hobbyists. In the 1960s, drones with cameras flew reconnaissance missions over China and Vietnam. But drones were always an oddity, the electronics technology was really not mature enough for the concept, and pilots who ran the US Air Force were never enamored with drones.

Following on the heels of his wonderful book about the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor (The Dream Machine), author Richard Whittle tells the story of the Predator, a slow and fragile-looking drone which has revolutionized air warfare. As recently as 2001, drones were on the margins of the American military, an interesting but marginal program. But the development and maturation of the Predator enabled it to be the right system at the right time after the United States went to war in 2001, and today the US Air Force trains more pilots for drones than fighter and bomber pilots.

Whittle’s book is mostly about people, including a brilliant but cantankerous Israeli inventor, two entrepreneurial brothers, a canny Pentagon staff officer, an Air Force helicopter pilot turned drone flyer, and several clever and resourceful engineers in both industry and the military. The profiles of these individuals are vivid. The narrative in the book is compelling, starting with concepts that led to the Predator and ending with combat over Afghanistan. Along the way, politics, lobbying, bureaucracy, technology and world events shape the Predator. Whittle weaves the tale in a compelling manner.

This book is neither a rigorous technical description of the Predator nor a complete operational history of it. Rather, it is a story about innovation and adaptation, about how the signature weapon system of the War on Terror came to be. It is a superb book, and I recommend it most enthusiastically.

5 stars out of a possible 5.

Full disclosure: The author furnished a review copy of this book to this blogger.

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