war on the rocks

The Sunset of the Predator: Reflections on the End of an Era

March 9, 2018

“The MQ-1 Predator … has contributed to … U.S. warfighting efforts in unprecedented ways and is scheduled to sunset on March 9, 2018.”
            Senior Airman James Thompson, 432nd Wing Public Affairs

On Oct. 7, 2001, the opening night of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, an MQ-1 Predator — tail number 3034, now on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum — watched a convoy of vehicles believed to belong to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Doctrinally, the air component maintains tactical control of theater air assets. In this case, however, according to most accounts, Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. Central Command, retained tactical control of the Predator and directed its crew to strike one of the vehicles without informing the air component. Air Component Commander Lt. Gen. Chuck Wald and Maj. Gen. Dave Deptula, who directed his air operations center, looked on unaware. The two airmen, both career fighter pilots, responded to the weapon impact’s characteristic infrared whiteout with a chorus of expletives. The missile successfully struck the target vehicle, killing a number of Omar’s armed guards. Omar, however, was inside the building at the time and evaded the strike. He lived to lead the Taliban for another 12 years.

That first-ever MQ-1 Predator combat sortie stands in stark contrast to Predator and Reaper sorties today.

For example, weeks ago on Feb. 22, an MQ-9 Reaper conducted a “historic multirole mission” in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. A single Reaper conducted a deliberate strike against a Taliban narcotics facility with four GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (a GPS-assisted munition only recently added to the Reaper’s arsenal) and then transitioned to an intelligence-gathering mission. Unlike the Predator of 2001, this aircraft was seamlessly integrated into the airspace and on-going air operations, and into the joint force more broadly. In their first 10 years, Predator crews conducted strikes in support of troops in contact and against high value (and fleeting) targets in support of special operations forces. They supported land and special operations forces as those forces pursued mission objectives. This widely publicized Reaper strike, however, demonstrated the ability to achieve mission objectives as a true theater asset — an ability the Predator/Reaper community has developed and sharpened over more than 16 years of combat

How did we get from there to here? During that first combat sortie in 2001, the Predator was still a proof-of-concept science project. Now, “persistent attack and reconnaissance” aircraft are a permanent fixture of American combat aviation. As the paradigm of such aircraft, the MQ-1 Predator has secured an important place in military history.

Today, the U.S. Air Force “sunsets” the Predator, permanently retiring it from service. Though individual squadrons have been transitioning from the Predator to the Reaper for some time, that transition is now complete. This provides a good opportunity to look back at the Predator to learn what we can of its impact on contemporary war and on future combat.

Though a Predator employed weapons against a high value target on the opening night of the war in Afghanistan, it didn’t provide its first weapon in support of troops in contact until the devastating Battle for Takur Ghar in Paktia Province — near the border with Pakistan — in 2002. Though joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs) are the consummate experts on coalition aircraft close air support (CAS) capabilities, in this case, the Predator was so new and so unknown that the JTAC attached to Task Force 11 was unaware that it was armed. After working through the confusion, the JTAC directed the Predator crew to strike the bunker from which they were taking fire with its last remaining Hellfire missile. According to Sean Naylor’s account, “When the smoke had cleared from the top of Takur Ghar, the bunker had collapsed and part of the tree was missing. [Friendly forces] took no more fire from there.” Though there were significant lessons to learn from that operation (including lessons about integrating air and ground operations), the Predator performed well. Employing precision munitions in support of troops in contact opened close air support as a new mission for the fledgling weapons system.

In the years that followed, the MQ-1 Predator — and beginning in 2007 the MQ-9 Reaper — continued to support counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations by conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, dynamic targeting strikes against high-value targets, and close air support of troops in contact.

In 2010, the set of missions for which the Predator could be tasked widened again. On Jan. 12, a massive earthquake devastated Port au Prince, Haiti. Predator crews provided real time full-motion video coverage of food distribution sites and of the roads that traversed the island from east to west. This was the backup corridor for food and supplies in case the single runway at Port au Prince airport became inoperable. But the Predator’s role in Operation Unified Response was significant for reasons beyond the specific operation. Because the aircraft launched from U.S. airspace, the U.S. Air Force required and obtained an “emergency certificate of authorization” form the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — a move that foreshadowed the 2012 Congressional mandate that the FAA “integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.”

Not long after the humanitarian response in Haiti, the Predator community was faced with a new operational challenge. The 2011 NATO air operation in Libya was a different kind of air war from those in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Libya, strike aircraft regularly conducted strike coordination and reconnaissance missions. Unlike the CAS missions of the previous ten years, in which pilots endeavored to meet ground force commander intent under the direct control of a JTAC, these “tactics placed more responsibility for positive identification on aircrew members, and thus required a great deal of diligence and fire discipline.” In addition to strike coordination and reconnaissance as a new mission set, the operation in Libya required Predator crews to participate in the destruction of enemy air defenses for the first time ever.

More recently, the Predator and Reaper have come of age in the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Delivering munitions at times within 25 meters of friendly forces, perfecting “urban CAS,” and capitalizing on multi-ship operations, the Predator and Reaper became a “cornerstone of the U.S. military’s air campaign” in Iraq and Syria. Lt. Gen. Harrigan, commander of the US Central Command Air Component recently said that the Predator and Reaper “community … has been instrumental to the defeat of [ISIL].

But the Predator’s influence is not limited to the tactical and operational levels of war. The weapons system’s reputation is prolific, reaching in fact to the highest levels of the U.S. government.

The Ubiquity of “Predator”

In May 2010, President Barack Obama took to the podium at the White House Correspondent’s Association Dinner. He predictably jabbed at media outlets and political rivals. But then he made a surprising quip: “The Jonas Brothers are here,” he said. “Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you: Predator drones.”

The president of the United States made reference, not to the military at large, not to a war in general, nor even to a specific branch of service. He made a joke about a specific Air Force airplane. Such references are exceedingly rare. Following the attacks on 9/11, for example, Vice President Dick Cheney distilled the unique power of the executive branch by saying “We’ve got the helicopters,” but didn’t say which ones. In Winston Churchill’s legendary 1940 speech, in which he praised the Royal Air Force airmen who won the Battle of Britain, he mentioned “fighter aircraft,” “bomber squadrons” and “machines,” but never mentioned Spitfires and Hurricanes. The language of commanders in chief is the language of strategy. U.S. presidents often tell us of “air and naval forces,” of “American bombers,” and of “American ships,” but rarely of specific weapons. And yet, Obama made reference to this one airplane. He did it in a joke. And everyone in the room knew exactly what he was talking about.

Though the airplane is known the world over, it is often misunderstood. Early commentators convinced many it was “a robot” and even the first of the “killer robots.” Others have been convinced that the Predator is “autonomous.” Still others assumed an emotional detachment among Predator crews, calling them “cubicle warriors,” “desktop warriors,” “joystick jockeys,” and “armchair soldiers.” A thorough discussion about (and correction of) the misunderstandings of Predator would require more space than is available here. Instead, I merely suggest that one of the contributing factors to these misunderstandings is that Predator is an ontological orphan. In other words, if we want to understand what kind of thing Predator is, we cannot simply look at aircraft of the previous generation.

Ontological Orphans

The few available histories make clear that Predator’s technological ancestors are well-known. The conceptual difficulty in understanding the Predator is grounded (at least in part) in the fact that though the Predator’s technological ancestors are well known, its operational lineage is much less clear.

Most other modern military aircraft are not subject to the same concerns. If we want to know what it means to be a 5th generation air superiority fighter (e.g., the F-22 Raptor), we first ask what it means to be a 4th generation air superiority fighter (e.g., the F-15 Eagle). Our robust operational categories give us a conceptual advantage when faced with a new aircraft that falls within an old category. We know what we mean by “strategic airlift,” “lightweight, multirole fighter,” and “long-range bomber.” Most 21st century combat aircraft fit neatly into this pre-packaged conceptual framework. But not the Predator. We can easily understand the Reaper if we first understand the Predator. But understanding the Predator is different and it is difficult.

Even a more nuanced look at Predator’s antecedents will be of little conceptual help. In fact, the MQ-1 that debuted in 2001 is a union of remotely piloted aircraft, a multispectral targeting system (MTS — the collection of cameras and lasers that constitute the “targeting pod”), and the Hellfire missile. In addition to the remotely piloted lineage mentioned above, the targeting system and Hellfire also have technological forebears. The Hellfire missile came to the Predator via Army and Marine Corps attack helicopters. Likewise, the MTS came to the Predator through the gunships. But even this threefold lineage fails to account for what the Predator is. Even an exhaustive knowledge of attack helicopters, gunships, and pre-Predator drones will be insufficient to provide an operational concept of the MQ-1 Predator.

Instead, the Predator represented a new ontological category, just as the Wright Flyer, the submarines of the U.S. Civil War (and perhaps even of the Revolutionary War), and the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile represented new categories of military platforms. Each innovation challenged standing conceptions and demanded that military operators, strategists, and policymakers modify old ways of thinking.

In the Predator’s case, the new ontological category can only be understood in terms of persistence. Perhaps the Air Force’s most important operational goal at the end of the last century was the ability to action time sensitive targets in “single-digit minutes.” Air Force senior leaders in the 1990s looked to network-centric warfare for the solution. The prevailing view at the time was that lag time in the “sensor-to-shooter” loop in the 1991 Iraq war was grounded in interoperability failures. Thus, as late as 2000, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Ryan held that the Air Force’s focus should be on technological solutions to the network problem. On this view, if Air Force assets could communicate with each other more effectively and efficiently, then the asset with the sensors could transmit the relevant intelligence to the asset with the weapon more quickly than before, closing the sensor-to-shooter loop.

Rather than closing the sensor-to-shooter loop between platforms, the Predator addressed the problem by putting the sensor and shooter on the same platform. Previously, the Air Force had a long-loiter capability in satellites and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft (e.g., E-8 JSTARS and U-2) and it had strike capability (e.g., F-16s and B-1s). The network problem was only a problem because the sensor and the shooter were two different aircraft. For the first time, the Predator provided near-24 hour loiter time and the ability to strike targets with precision munitions.

Surely this was not a cure-all. Predator lacked the robust ISR capability that the rest of the Air Force fleet possessed. For example, during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, American forces fought a modern military force made up of tanks, armored vehicles, and missile sites. The U.S. military employed a network of advanced weapons against traditional military targets. As Benjamin Lambeth explains, at one point, sandstorms raged with high winds and near-zero visibility. E-8 JSTARS, RC-135 Rivet Joint, and B-1 aircraft used ground moving target indicator radar and other systems to locate time sensitive targets through the storm. The whole force shifted from laser-guided bombs that required laser guidance through the impenetrable sand to GPS-aided bombs that could be dropped through the weather. The U.S. military brought the fullness of “network-centric warfare” — the technological solution to the sensor-to-shooter problem Gen. Ryan and others had envisioned years before — to bear against the Iraqi military. The Predator was only of use “once the sandstorm abated.”

One might wonder, if the Predator is unable to provide the sensor-to-shooter loop on a single platform in a situation like the 2003 sandstorm, what good is it? But of course, that wasn’t the role the Predator was designed to play. Though the opening days of the 2003 air war in Iraq featured the U.S. military in a conventional fight against the Iraqi military, that force-on-force contest soon dissipated. In the many years that have followed (in Afghanistan, Iraq, and later in Syria) the U.S. military found itself not in great power conflict but in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations. And the Predator was the perfect solution to the sensor-to-shooter problem in operations such as these. By providing persisting attack and reconnaissance against a low-tech enemy in uncontested airspace, Predator crews could wait for the right moment, generate precision effects, and minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage — all while maintaining the sensor-to-shooter loop on a single, long-loiter aircraft. The Predator was ideal for fighting the wars America has faced in this century.

Looking Ahead

As we look forward, we should keep one eye on operational categories.

The Predator and Reaper are considered “multi-mission” and “unmanned” (thus, “MQ”). The first designation is operational, the other technological. If we want to have an operational discussion, we need to focus on operational categories. Perhaps the U.S. Air Force at large has come to appreciate this distinction: Its next “long range strike bomber,” the B-21, is to be “optionally manned.” The control mechanism, then, has important technological implications, but operationally, a bomber is a bomber. Air Force senior leaders have rightly organized this new airplane into long-standing operational categories. It is a “long range strike bomber” and it has been labeled appropriately. “B,” after all, is for “bomber.

As we bid farewell to the Predator, there is at least one other lesson we can take away from this brief historical survey. At each point in the story, the Predator had its detractors. Many thought it wouldn’t become an effective close air support asset. Others thought it wouldn’t be capable of deliberate targeting. In the absence of canopy glass and visual signals, many doubted its ability to conduct multi-ship operations. At every step, this airplane and its crews have silenced the skeptics. The lesson, perhaps, is that we should not constrain an aircraft based on its control mechanisms — the fact that the cockpit is physically removed from the aircraft need not have any impact on how we apply combat airpower. As other mission sets arise, perhaps we should be a little quicker to find a role for current (and future) remotely piloted aircraft. For example, some have argued for a sharper distinction between “attack” and “fighter” missions (or, better still, “mentalities”). One wonders what would restrict Reaper crews from fulfilling the attack role well. Some have suggested that the Reaper might even contend well in the competition for the light attack aircraft (or “OA-X”).

What the MQ-1 Predator’s 16 years of service — and the MQ-9 Reaper’s 10 years — have shown us is that they are, first and foremost, “multi-mission” aircraft. As the Air Force “sunsets” the Predator, we should look both at the horizon behind and the one ahead. The fact that these aircraft are remotely piloted, though an abiding technological fact, should increasingly become an operational afterthought.


Joe Chapa is a Major in the U.S. Air Force and doctoral student in Philosophy at the University of Oxford, UK. He is a senior pilot with more than 1,000 pilot and instructor pilot hours. He has published on military ethics and remotely piloted aircraft in The Journal of Military Ethics, Social Theory and Practice (forthcoming), The Journal of Character and Leadership Integration, and War on The Rocks. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Christian Clausen