Attack of the Drones – Started in WWII!

The AQM-34 Ryan Firebee. The drone pictured flew 68 missions, when it was expected to only survive two.

Drones are playing a larger role in modern automated warfare. It means that war can be fought remotely without the use of troops or people to man the aircraft. But even before drones were used more recently, automated warfare was attempted during the Vietnam War more than 50 years ago.

War creates the need for research and technological development in order to out manoeuvre the enemy. Throughout the 20th Century World War One, World War Two, the Vietnam War, Cold War, and first Iraq War have all induced the development of military equipment and weapons.

During Vietnam, various aircraft were used to circle behind enemy lines 24 hours a day relaying radio signals back to a secret base in Thailand. Taskforce Alpha was based there and was central to the development of automated military equipment.

The air locked and air conditioned building was pressurized in order to protect the machinery behind the doors of the secret operation. The researchers based there monitored sensor signals sent from the aircraft on patrol, putting through sophisticated computers that could analyse the data. As fast as they were receiving data, programmers were writing new software so that the computers could analyse all of the data they were receiving.

It was the US military’s first step towards removing human error from military action and replacing it with automated machines. General Westmoreland, who was in charge of US troops in Vietnam during the war, envisioned the future of warfare being focused on tracking and targeting the enemy using datalinks and computer intelligence. He believed the need for large troop numbers would be erased, replaced by machines that would be able to kill on first contact and surveillance that could track the enemy wherever they were.

Even during World War One a test radio-controlled aircraft had been designed to attack enemy locations. At the time the project was ended because tests showed the aircraft could not be accurate or reliable, and they suffered many crashes. It was a couple of scientists in the US Navy who created the name ‘drone’, after they had reviewed a list of names of flying animals including insects and birds, the Business Insider reports.

Then in World War Two the US Navy flew B-24 bombers laden with explosives into German submarine bases, all by remote control. Human pilots would man the take off and then set the aircraft to fly to its destination automatically, and they would evacuate via parachute.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE