War By Remote Control — 2,500 Years of Unmanned Vehicles

The MQ-1 Predator can reach speeds of 135 mph and fly as high as 25,000 feet. The one-ton UAV has a wingspan of just under 50 feet and can travel up to 650 nautical miles.

If there is one weapon system that symbolizes the decade-old  “War of Terror” it’s the unmanned Predator drone. Since 2004, Predators have conducted more than 300 strikes in Pakistan alone, killing more than 3,000 (and a significant number of those have been innocent civilians).[1]

Although originally designed in the mid-1990s to relay real-time video footage from the battlefield to the ground, in the opening weeks of the Afghanistan war, MQ-1 Predators stepped out of their original role as mere spectators of battle to become actual participants in it. On Nov. 8, 2001, a CIA Predator armed with an AGM-114 Hellfire missile fired on what U.S. intelligence believed was Al Qaeda’s number three man, Mullah Akhund. The missile didn’t kill Akhund, but it did eliminate three other suspected terrorists. The strike made headlines worldwide and within three years, Predators were flying reconnaissance and strike missions over Afghanistan as well as operating in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq and most recently Libya. In fact, Predator attacks have become so frequent they barely make the front pages anymore. But while UAVs are still considered as being on the cutting edge of military technology, the idea of sending an unmanned aircraft, ground vehicles or even boats into battle is centuries old and has occurred throughout military history. Here are some examples.

An American fireship collides with a British warship during the War of Independence.

Boatloads of Trouble
The earliest attempt at using unmanned vehicles came long before the era of flight. Throughout maritime history, navies have sought to destroy enemy ships by setting some of their own empty vessels on fire (or loading them with explosives) and then steering them on collision courses with adversaries’ fleets.

The first recorded attempt at using one of these “fire ships” comes to us from the Ancient Greek historian Thucydides. [2] He records that between 415 and 413 BCE, the defenders of Syracuse tried to defeat the Athenians by sailing a merchant vessel loaded with blazing wood bundles into a flotilla of Greek triremes. While the Athenians managed to divert the fire ship away from their own boats and douse the flames, the entire Greek expedition of 5,000 was ultimately defeated in the campaign.

Fire ships were used again in 468, when the Vandals set a number of them loose on Byzantine vessels. [3]

During the Age of Sail (roughly the 16th to 19th Centuries), fire ships were commonly used by most European navies. Ships of this era, with their wooden hulls, pitch caulking and canvas sails, were particularly vulnerable to fire. [4] And when incendiary vessels could be let loose within the confines of a port or harbor, the effects could be devastating.

Francis Drake used fire ships against the Spanish at least twice: once in his attack on Cadiz in 1587 and the following year to scatter the Armada as it gathered to assault the British Isles. Even during the siege of Antwerp in 1585, the English used a specific type of fire ship known as a ‘hell-burner’ – a crewless vessel crammed with gunpowder that was rigged to explode when it entered the enemy-held harbour. [5] In this instance, the vessels damaged a number of  ships and killed more than a thousand Spaniards.

Fire ships continued to be used throughout the 17th Century, but eventually the threat they posed dwindled as navies developed tactics on how to evade and divert them. However, they would appear as late as the Napoleonic Wars. As iron replaced wood on warships in the mid-19th Century, fire ships became mostly obsolete.

Interestingly enough, the use of unmanned ships was briefly revived during the Second World War. In 1942 the British Royal Navy loaded the crewless destroyer HMS Campbeltown with TNT and drove it into the Nazi-held dry-dock at St. Nazaire, France to deprive the Germans of the facility. Also during the war, the Italians developed remote controlled speed boats that could carry up to 700 lbs. to use against Allied ships. The cruiser HMS York fell victim to one of these Motoscafo da Turismo Modificatos (MTMs).

Allied troops survey a trio of German Goliath tracked mines.

Tracked Mines
The fire ship concept was commandeered by some 20th century armies and applied to land vehicles. The 1917 Wickersham Land Torpedo is one example of this. It was an American experimental remote controlled mini-tank that could carry a several hundred pound explosive charge into enemy defences. An operator could guide the machine via a thin wire that unspooled from the vehicle as it made its way across a battlefield. The system never went into production, but a German variation did during World War Two. The Goliath was a 4-foot long, 1-foot tall remote controlled tank that could carry a 100 lb. charge into enemy positions or beneath a tank at which point it could be detonated. Original models were electrically powered, but later variants were fitted with more rugged gasoline engines. Goliaths could travel up to 650 meters at an unimpressive speed of 6 mph. Costly to produce and vulnerable to small arms fire, the Goliaths were not very successful, although they were deployed by the German army on the western front as well as in the east. The Goliaths were perhaps used with the greatest success during the 1944 uprising in Warsaw. But even the lightly armed Polish resistance managed to frequently immobilize the vehicles by simply dashing over to them and cutting the wire used to control the machines.  While largely a failure, some argue that the Goliath did lay the groundwork for latter-day remote controlled and robotic vehicles for both law enforcement and police tactical units. [6]

The American Kettering bug was just one of many attempts during the First World War to transform airplane designs into remote controlled bombs or rudimentary cruise missiles.

Drones and Cruise Missiles
It wasn’t long after the invention of the airplane itself that military planners experimented with turning them into remote controlled bombs. The First World War greatly accelerated the interest in this new species of weapon. As early as October, 1914, the German technology firm Siemens Schuckert Werks began testing winged bombs that could be dropped from an airplane or Zeppelin and guided onto a target (like a surface ship) using a thin wire that unspooled from the back of the bomb as it fell. Crews could control and correct the heading of the bomb as it fell. Large stabilizing wings could be controlled through the wire to direct the bomb. While none of these weapons were ever deployed on the battlefield, by the war’s end the Germans had managed to get their 260 lb. flying bombs to travel distances of up to four miles, although the success rate of these early cruise missiles was ‘hit and miss’. [7]

The Americans had similar success with their forays into unmanned aircraft. The Kettering Bug was a 180 lb. winged bomb that resembled a small bi-plane. During test flights in the fall of 1918, some Kettering Bugs travelled up to 75 miles at speeds of 50 mph. The Americans built 45 of the $400 flying missiles. But with an accuracy rate of only about 30 percent in stateside testing, the army balked at deploying them in battle. [8] The entire project was classified top secret and withheld from the public for decades. Unmanned planes would continue to be tested during the inter-war years as auto-pilot and gyroscope technology improved, however these aircraft were largely for the purpose of providing anti-aircraft gunners and fighter pilots the opportunity to practice firing on moving airborne targets.

In the 1930s, Soviet engineers came up with rocket-powered bombs known as GIRD-6s that could fly and/or glide up to 280 kms. None were produced. Similar German tests yielded more promising results. German V-1 flying bombs, of which 9,500 were fired at the United Kingdom in 1944 and 1945, could fly 160 miles at a speed of 400 mph. Each carried an Amitol-39 warhead that weighed just under a ton. The V-1s, nicknamed the buzz bomb or doodlebug, claimed more than 22,000 lives, mostly civilians. The lesser-known Mistel project was a German scheme that would see a pilot in a Focke-Wulf fighter remotely control an explosive-laden unmanned bomber and deliver it onto a target, such as a factory or a ship. At take off, the FW-190 would be attached to the top of a pilotless Ju-88, which would be crammed with explosives. Once near the target area, the operator would release the bomber, which would fly via remote control into the target. An estimated 250 Mistels were built; only a handful would be used in battle and with dubious success. One Mistel was directed at an Allied-held port in Normandy following D-Day. It caused little if any damage. Later in the war, two Mistels were loosed upon a bridge from Poland into Germany that had been overrun by the Red Army. Neither did significant damage. [9]

Following the war, both the U.S. and the Soviets would work on unmanned flying bombs, later known as cruise missiles. But not all unmanned aircraft were used as flying bombs. After the Vietnam War, the United States government revealed that it had been using remotely piloted recon drones in its struggle against the communists in South East Asia. As many as 3,000 missions were flown using these pilotless propeller-driven aircraft. By the 1991 Gulf War, UAVs were being widely used. Following 9/11, America’s Predator drones made headlines as they fired on Al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East.


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1. http://ammo.com/articles/armed-drones-obamas-weapon-of-choice-infographic

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_ship

3. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/TUDdrakeF.htm

4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_ship

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hellburners

6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goliath_tracked_mine

7. http://warnepieces.blogspot.ca/2011/12/guided-missiles-world-war-one-style.html

8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kettering_Bug

9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mistel

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