The Age of Drones
After a century of innovation, millions of drones now take to the air and warfare has been changed forever.
Editor's Note: Michael J. Boyle is an Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at La Salle University and a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia. He is the author of four books including The Drone Age: How Drone Technology Will Change War and Peace, a comprehensive look at drone technology and the risks that it might bring published this month by Oxford University Press. This essay was adapted from that book.
By late 1944, the tide of war had turned against Nazi Germany. Allied forces were preparing for an invasion to liberate occupied Europe and destroy the government of Adolph Hitler. Nazi military forces were stalemated or losing on both fronts, while their leaders were getting glimpses of the ruin that awaited the German people once the invasion began.
This dark future left the Nazi leadership desperate for ways to forestall a disaster and, if not, punish their enemies with a last, desperate strike. Hitler put German scientists to work to create what he referred to as “vengeance weapons” which could strike at civilians in the United Kingdom and other Allied countries. Among these were the V-1 rocket, otherwise known as a “buzz bomb” or the “doodlebug” for its buzzing sound as it slowly flew over British cities, and the terrifying V-2 rocket.
China plans to produce as many as 42,000 land- and sea-based military drones by 2023.
Under the leadership of Werner Von Braun, German scientists created nearly space-age technology with the V-2, which could fly hundreds of miles to a preprogrammed destination according to an automatic guidance system. Fueled by liquid propellant and equipped with a sophisticated gyroscope for direction finding, V-2 rockets were lightning fast — they could reach their target in under five minutes from launch without warning — and extremely lethal. One estimate suggests that V-1 and V-2 rockets killed more than 8,000 people and injured another 22,000 in Britain alone.
Operation Aphrodite and the death of Lt. Joe Kennedy, Jr.
Aware that Germany had plans on the drawing board for even more lethal rockets and nuclear weapons, Allied leaders looked for ways to destroy V-1 and V-2 launch pads to slow down their progress. The problem was that the sites on the coast of northern France were difficult to hit — Allied missiles at the time were neither precise enough to hit them directly nor powerful enough to shatter their steel and concrete frames.
The Allies desperately needed a new weapon to counter the Nazi’s V-2 rockets.
To tackle this problem, US Air Force officials considered turning nearly out-of-service aircraft into missiles that could strike hardened German bunkers along the coast. These planes would be stripped of all unnecessary weaponry and other gear and packed full of explosives, then flown low at around 2,000 feet toward the target followed by a larger plane, dubbed a mothership, which would adjust the plane’s auto-pilot functions and help steer it to its final outcome. To hide their approach in daytime, they were painted yellow or white. At the time, these “aircraft turned cruise missiles” were called drones because they were controlled by radio from another aircraft. According to US Air Force Chief General Henry “Hap” Arnold, these drones were desirable because “if you can get mechanical machines to do this, you are saving lives at the outset.”
Working with General Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz, Arnold ordered the Air Force to retrofit B- 17 planes with the newest military autopilots and radio systems. Their secret plan, called Operation Aphrodite, began test flights in Florida and Britain to see if strikes against German missile bunkers would even be possible. As the plans moved forward, Air Force officials gradually hollowed out both B-17 and B-24 planes and transformed them into remotely controllable cruise missiles. They packed the planes with 30,000 pounds of RDX explosives by stripping out every piece of payload not necessary.
These planes, renamed BQ-7s, were heavy, weighing over 64,000 pounds, but still airworthy. The biggest technological problem that they faced was the remote control of the aircraft. While the mothership flying behind the explosive-laden aircraft could make adjustments to the trajectory of a BQ-7 in flight and even convey television pictures of the cockpit and control panel, Operation Aphrodite required pilots to be in the aircraft to get it airborne and to point it in the right direction of the target. The control of the plane from the mothership was not sophisticated enough to allow for the plane to take off on its own as a truly unmanned vehicle.