The emergence of unmanned aerial systems, or drones, as an instrument of war is often referred to as a “revolutionary” development in military technology. Thus, a new history of the subject is entitled “Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution” by Richard Whittle (Henry Holt, 2014).
But if it is a revolution, it is more like a turning of a wheel that will continue to revolve rather than the permanent transformation of all that has come before it. Armed drones represent an innovative response to a particular threat, but they are themselves bound to inspire other innovations and reactions from adversaries.
The development of drones as an ongoing process of adaption and response is the animating idea behind “Sting of the Drone,” a thriller by former National Security Council official Richard A. Clarke (who was a leading advocate for arming drones in the Clinton and Bush Administrations).
“This is not a static environment,” says a character in the novel named Dugout. “It’s more like classic two-player game theory. We each learn about the other’s behavior and adjust.”
In the novel, the terrorist targets of U.S. drone attacks adjust by deciding to attack the individual drone operators, who believe — mistakenly, as it turns out — that they are far removed from the battlefield.
One of the least believable features of Clarke’s novel, which is perfectly readable by the standards of airport fiction, is the character of Dugout, a super-skilled hacker and what-not who can accomplish technological feats that are beyond the imagination of his hidebound, boringly conventional colleagues.
So it comes as a surprise to read in Richard Whittle’s history that there was in fact at least one such real-life character associated with the weaponization of U.S. drones, who is identified only as “Werner” (“not because he is a covert operative, for he never was, but because he prefers to remain anonymous”). Werner, an imagery scientist and all-purpose technologist, was able to swiftly conceive and implement solutions to problems that left others completely stumped. . . .