Of course, in those months before September 11, , none of its designers knew the nature of the clock they were racing against.
And most Americans have no idea quite how close they came to beating it. After Iraq, Swanson became a special operations pilot, focusing on sensitive and covert missions. Whenever he was at home base, he would volunteer to help test new Air Force weapons. In , Swanson was coming up on the end of a two-year mission in Iceland, some details of which remain classified.
Contemplating his next move, he searched a database of Air Force duty openings and found a curious posting that asked for rated pilots to join the Eleventh Reconnaissance Squadron at Indian Springs Air Force Base, near Las Vegas.
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An avid reader of Aviation Week , Swanson already knew a bit about the unmanned aircraft. Hand-built by a small, idiosyncratic California startup called General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, it had been used in the Balkans for surveillance since But it was not well loved by the defense establishment.
In , an evaluation by the Defense Department found that it suffered mechanical failures in a staggering 12 percent of missions. To most Air Force pilots, the idea of operating a drone would be a nonstarter. Pilots fly in planes.
But Swanson had always been interested in tinkering, technology, and experimental weapons. As a teenager, he once used a homemade batch of cellulose nitrate to fire a projectile through the door of an abandoned car. This past spring, I made my way to the Pentagon to meet him. For security reasons, he declined to be named. From then on, he became a Predator evangelist, providing political cover and money when the project faced a roadblock. In , Marshall helped see to it that the Predator program was handed over to a tiny outfit within the military that would essentially improvise the genesis of modern drone warfare: an entity known as Big Safari.
A highly secretive Air Force skunkworks based in Dayton, Ohio, Big Safari specialized in modifying standard Air Force aircraft for time-sensitive and highly classified operations, sometimes even for use in just a single mission. Expediency, agility, and thrift were essential. And in the spring of , during the Kosovo War, they got their first major chance to tinker with it. The Air Force came to Big Safari looking for a new way to steer laser-guided bombs dropped by jet fighters.
In a typically lightning-fast turnaround, Big Safari had a modified Predator ready to be airlifted to the battlefield within 45 days. And its pilot—both in preliminary testing and on the ground in Kosovo—was none other than Scott Swanson.
Ordinarily, before a modified military aircraft is dispatched into combat, it has to pass through a lengthy vetting process that can take years. But Big Safari liked to deploy its creations before they were fully polished. The rest of the Air Force was naturally allergic to this approach. Unwilling to play a game of telephone, Grimes just gave Swanson a secure line so he could report back to Big Safari on the sly.
In Kosovo itself, Swanson participated in just one strike before the war ended. But by then, the pilot and his colleagues at Big Safari could tell they were onto something; a drone that could pinpoint targets was no joke. And that future was about to come at them in a rush.
Intelligence reports indicated that bin Laden was planning further attacks. The agency wanted to put eyes on the al Qaeda leader and possibly target him, so it went looking for a covert way to get a high-powered camera over Afghanistan. The agency and the Pentagon considered several options, including a bizarre plan to mount a giant telescope on the side of a mountain. First off, Big Safari had to figure out a way to sneak the Predator into Afghan airspace.
Between maintenance crews, pilots, and field officers, it took several dozen people on the ground to sustain the operations of a single drone. To make the operation truly covert, they would need to separate the drone from those controlling it by several thousand miles—by situating the command center at Ramstein Base in Germany. Ginger Wallace, an Air Force intelligence officer who was assigned to work on the project, thought the idea was ludicrous. The guy who figured out how to do exactly that—how to wage war from thousands of miles away with a few clever modifications—was known among his colleagues in Big Safari as the Man With Two Brains, for his freakish intelligence.
An independent contractor who started working on the Predator in , the Man With Two Brains almost never gives interviews. He spoke on condition of strict anonymity. At the beginning of our conversation, which I was allowed to record with a pen and paper only, I was scanned with a small black device, for a wire. The basic premise of his remote control system, called split operations, was simple.
A small, covert team of General Atomics contractors would post up at an airfield somewhere in a country bordering Afghanistan the location of the site remains classified. There, they would launch the drone using a traditional line-of-sight remote control link. True to Big Safari hacking tradition, the system did not require any significant new technology.
But it did pose certain creative challenges. A team of contractors dismantled and made off with the satellite dish in a single night. By the time one of the lower-level staffers who managed the dish discovered it was gone and began circulating angry emails demanding its return, it was already en route to Germany, as were Swanson, some General Atomics contractors, and a joint CIA and Air Force operations team.
Swanson was circling over Tarnak Farms, a walled compound near the Kandahar airport where bin Laden—or UBL as the team called him, referring to the alternative spelling, Usama—was thought to be living.
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Sure enough, a man in white, surrounded by an entourage, soon emerged on their screens. The team had been instructed to continue circling for as long as necessary, even if that meant running out of fuel and crashing. But for reasons obscure to the team, no strike was ordered.
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It was clear: If the Predator had been armed, Swanson could have done the killing himself. And sure enough, the flight over Tarnak Farms kicked into high gear a project that had been quietly under way for months. Air Combat Command had decided to look into arming the Predator in When they put Big Safari on the case, Grimes convened a gathering of engineers and weapons specialists at the Big Safari office in Dayton.
On the first day of what would become a two-day meeting, he noticed that some of the engineers were laughing at the proposition of mounting a missile on a motorized glider. Grimes and his team briefly considered packing the Predator with explosives and flying it directly into its targets, but a projectile that chugged along at highway speed was too slow to reliably surprise anyone. But the technical challenges of taking an antitank weapon designed to be fired from no higher than 2, feet and converting it into an antipersonnel missile that would be shot from above 10, feet were considerable.
Among other things, the Predator would need a new forward-looking infrared camera, the team would need to recode the guidance systems on each missile, and someone was going to have to figure out how to give an armor-piercing munition the kind of grenade-like, shrapnel-spewing blast that would be effective at killing humans. Big Safari had already proven it was possible to get a Predator within striking distance of the al Qaeda leader. Now their goal was to get a shot at him with an armed Predator before the next winter.
When the CIA approved the idea of a lethal Predator and put its weight behind the program, the project went into overdrive. In the summer of , the German government decided that it would not permit the US to operate its newly armed Predators from Ramstein. When Omar stopped and entered another building complex, the United States had an opportunity to deliver a devastating blow to its enemies in the opening minutes of the war.
But there was a problem. There had never been a lethal action by a remotely piloted aircraft before, and the rules governing the operation of the Predator were blurred and untested.
According to Deptula, the CAOC already had F fighter aircraft on standby 20 miles to the south, armed with 1,pound bombs. In the chaotic moments that followed, the Taliban leader escaped. He is still angry about the failed opportunity. It was a significant lost strategic opportunity—to put it mildly. The regular Air Force and U. Special Forces got their own armed drone fleets after After leaving university, the pair first tried their hand at farming in Nicaragua.