The drone craze has set off a wave of pundit hand-wringing about the global spread of unmanned technology and its consequences.
But a declassified report from the CIA’s analytical arm shows that the agency was predicting a wave of drone proliferation as far back as the mid-1980s, at a time when the iconic Predator drone was only a glint in Langley’s eye.
The 1986 intelligence assessment, “Remotely Piloted Vehicles in the Third World: A New Military Capability,” prepared by the CIA’s Office of Global Issues, shows that the trickle of unmanned technology into the developing world first began decades ago.
The CIA’s assessment argued that advances in technology had made drones a more capable, accessible, and popular purchase than ever before—a trend the agency expected only to continue in the years to come. Israel’s innovative use of drones in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, in particular, had “heightened Third World interest in [unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)].”
The growing interest in unmanned systems around the world, according to the assessment, was a sign that “a number of other Third World nations with relatively large and professional militaries will become users of RPVs by the mid-1990s, especially with the development of inexpensive and easy-to-use systems.”
By the time of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, drones were already well known to the world’s militaries. The United States had used them extensively in the Vietnam War. Israel’s use of drones during the invasion of Lebanon, however, represented an altogether more innovative application of the technology.
The Israeli air force used UAVs not only to provide reconnaissance on Syrian air defenses in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (PDF) but also to trick surface-to-air missile system (SAM) operators into thinking the aircraft were manned Israeli jets. When the SAM operators switched on their radars or fired missiles at the decoy drones, they exposed their positions to real Israeli jets nearby, which jammed and bombed them.
Israel’s wider war in Lebanon would drag on for years, but the battle against Syrian air defenses in the Bekaa Valley—in preparation for about a year—was won in short order, after Israel was able to destroy 17 of the 19 Syrian SAMs deployed there.
While Israel’s drone use acted as a demonstration point for drones on the battlefield, technological advances in the 1980s meant that purchasing drones would be increasingly attainable for smaller militaries viewing from the sidelines.
According to the agency’s analysis, lighter airframes, made possible by new composite materials, were increasing drones’ ability to carry heavier and heavier payloads. Cheaper solid state television cameras coming onto the market would also make basic video cameras a go-to sensor for smaller, more affordable drones, while a new crop of faster chips would help speed up the processing of videos feeds.
Until the 1980s, militaries used drones almost overwhelmingly for intelligence and surveillance. But by 1986, there were already signs that drones would take on a strike role.
South Africa’s National Dynamics was at work on a UAV that could fire unguided 2.75-inch rockets. In the United States, the Army was expressing interest in the Sky Eye, capable of firing the unguided rockets and carrying Hellfire missiles (PDF)—the same missile later used on armed Reaper and Predator drones. Sky Eye’s cousin, the Army’s ill-fated MQM-105 Aquila drone program, used a laser designator to identify targets for artillery systems and other aircraft to fire laser-guided Copperhead artillery shells and Hellfire missiles.
These developments helped convince the CIA that a new generation of drones would be used for “attack missions” and could “deliver standoff munitions.”
Back then, as now, the declining barriers to drone ownership raised the specter of their use as a terrorist weapon. Given terrorists’ prior use of gliders and other small transport vehicles in attacks, they might see drones as a kind of poor man’s missile, “effectively converting the [UAV] into a guided bomb capable of surprise attacks at short and medium ranges.”
The report warned that “a bomb-laden [UAV] provided to a terrorist group by a patron state could be used against a US embassy or target in a dramatic fashion.” Libya and Iran loomed as the largest threats for terrorist use of UAVs, with the report judging larger Palestinian terrorist groups as the most capable of employing them in kamikaze fashion.
Overall, though, the agency viewed drone proliferation in the “Third World” as mostly a good thing that could “help prevent conflict and maintain stability in tense Middle Eastern and Asian areas.” It argued that the intelligence the drones collected in conflict-prone regions could provide transparency about neighbors’ intentions and reduce the kinds of miscalculations that can lead to larger wars—all without the escalatory risk of losing a flesh-and-blood pilot.
So how does the CIA’s 1986 vision of the drone future line up with today? The report only extended its analysis into the mid-1990s, making 2016 a slightly unfair yardstick by which to judge the agency’s analytical skills. Still, though the report missed some of the politics and technologies that were most important in turning the drone trickle into a flood, some of its analysis has held up pretty well, even long past its sell-by date.
Drone interest in the Middle East and South Asia did pick up in the 1990s. The 1999 Kargil war between India and Pakistan spurred India to buy Israeli-made UAVs, starting a drone trade with Israel that continues to this day. In the Middle East, Iraq experimented with ill-fated drone development programs of varying size from the late 1980s until the 2003 U.S. invasion (PDF). And Iran continued its UAV development begun during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1990s, while Israel was still a drone export powerhouse.
Today that trend has only intensified, as at least 86 countries’ militaries have some kind of UAV, according to a study by the New America Foundation. Even armed drones, once an exclusive preserve of a handful of advanced militaries, are an ever more common sight in the developing world, with Iraq, Pakistan, and Nigeria becoming the latest armed forces to use them in combat.
And as the CIA feared, terrorists have made use of bomb-laden drones, albeit not to great effect. During the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon war, Hezbollah strapped explosives to a crude Iranian-made Ababil-II drone and flew it over Israel, where it was shot down by an F-16. Jihadist groups in Iraq. Also, Syria, like ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, has used small commercial quadrotor drones for propaganda and limited reconnaissance.
The report did miss in a few key areas, however. “It’s not so much their assumptions of the technology, it’s their assumptions of geopolitics,” said Peter Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
Little could the analysts working on narrow weapons technology issues have expected that the Soviet Union would collapse in five short years or that some 30 years later China would rise to become a weapons powerhouse and prolific drone supplier. As a result, the report viewed the near future of the UAV trade as dominated by Western development and exports, with China as a customer of drone technology rather than the export rival it is today.
On the technology side, improvements in the size, weight, and power of drones and their sensors were key to the success of UAVs, but “it wasn’t until unmanned systems were married up with GPS that they became truly useful,” said Singer. He told a story of an unarmed Air Force Predator drone scouting for Serbian military targets hiding among civilians during the war in Bosnia. The UAV managed to find a Serb tank, but the lack of precise coordinates for either the tank or the Predator prevented U.S. forces from being able to do much about it.
Five years after the Predator’s integration with GPS, President Clinton ordered the federal government to make more precise coordinates from the satellite navigation system’s civilian channel available to the world. Up to that point, the U.S. had intentionally degraded the accuracy of civilian GPS signals in an effort to prevent their use in weapons systems. The May 2000 order reversed that policy, unlocking the potential for a myriad of GPS applications, including both civilian and military drones.
While views on the merits and morality of unmanned systems in war are by no means uniform, some of the CIA’s cautious optimism about drones is shared by analysts today.
Even today, the intelligence drones provide could make them a stabilizing force in international relations as more countries adopt them, argues Michael Horowitz in a working paper written with colleagues Sarah E. Kreps and Matthew Fuhrmann.
“A lot of conflict happens because of uncertainty and fear about what adversaries might be doing,” Horowitz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively about U.S. drone and technology policy, told The Daily Beast. “To the extent that UAVs increase the information that both sides have about a given situation, it makes them less likely to inadvertently stumble into a conflict.”