To compare technologies over a thirty-year period is fraught with peril. But to peer into the future is what you do if you work in R&D. In 1991, when I worked in R&D, drones were a discussion, an experiment or two, but not a thing. If they were a real thing in 1991, they’d be hatched in the Pentagon vault down the hall, and only a few would know. But I don’t think so. Now in 2021, they are the tool of choice. In 2021, we have drone pilots going to war every day. They suit up and climb into a van in the Nevada desert.
A year after the Persian Gulf War, I wrote my first research paper at Air Command and Staff College about how drones would replace fighter pilots. After all, you never heard a drone complain about pulling 12Gs. The paper was well researched, articulate, and thought-provoking. In my mind, it was so good I was sure I’d be hailed as the next Billy Mitchell.
You all remember the story of General Mitchell, don’t you? Ok, ok, a refresher. In the 1920’s, Army Air Corps General Mitchell proved that you could bomb Navy ships at sea. The Navy didn’t believe him. Billy Mitchell found the ship, released a few bombs, and damaged the ship. The skeptical Navy sustained a few casualties.
Before I could turn my paper in, my reviewers wanted some changes. I inserted the word “perhaps” drones would replace fighter pilots. Unlike Billy Mitchell, I was not deemed a hero, and my paper was judged “Acceptable.”
So, we fight today’s wars with the clothes we have, not that new suit you see in Macy’s window. I did as General Walker said. I put the small “Earth Science Company” of weirdos in Bethesda, Maryland, on contract to the NRO.
Turns out that this small Bethesda company also had a contract with the CIA to provide data that goes into the CIA’s “Factbook.” The Factbook is a compendium and the definitive source of basic political, economic, and cultural information on every country on the planet. The Factbook contains political stability information, financial forecasts, and, you guessed it, crop yields. The CIA Factbook is unclassified, but the data to build it is everything but. How much opium does Afghanistan produce every year? Ask the weirdos from Bethesda; they’d know. This small company housed a collection of geologists, agronomists, economists, and soothsayers. They used Landsat satellite imagery and weather forecasts to predict agricultural yields and mineral reserves. These weirdos were now on contract. Under contract to me, to find the unfindable, looking for what the military and CIA couldn’t find. Find the needle in a desert full of haystacks.
Rumor was that these weirdos were also multi-millionaires. If your major work is to build economic forecasts on countries around the world, and then those forecasts get published in a government document, it would consequently drive the financial markets. Not only did these people know the news before it was news, but they also literally made up the news. Now many of you are thinking that this sounds a lot like inside baseball and something less than on the up and up. In my life, I often noticed that for many people, their internal moral compass is a few degrees off true north. Anyway, these were rumors, and I had a war to prepare for.
Deep in the bowels of the Pentagon, there is a small group of Air Force officers who make the plans for the Air Campaign for War. Their job is to define the strategy that builds the target lists that make up the plans for an Air War Campaign. Only the best fighter pilots get selected for this group. If you are not a fighter pilot, you can’t get into their vault. You can’t unless Don Walker (General) tells you to knock on their door. So, I did. The senior “Space Operations” badge on my uniform, while impressive to me, was viewed with disdain and contempt by the red-scarfed, flight-suited major who opened the door.
Every profession has a pecking order—the Sneeches with stars and the Sneeches with none upon thars. In medicine, I suppose it’s the heart or brain surgeons. In law, it is the few who qualify to argue in front of the Supreme Court. In the Air Force, it’s the fighter pilots. These fighter pilots, these red-scarfed wonder boys in that vault, were the best of the best. Anyone else was “just support.” These few pilots were here to plan a war. Many, if not most, would make Flag rank. A few would become the four-star generals of tomorrow’s war. From this crop, I was granted five minutes with their boss.
Colonels and generals in the field would lead the actual efforts, but a few young pilots at the top of their game would build the strategy for war. Young pilots, my age. This was my audience. I got five minutes with the pilot planners and their boss. I was 35 years old and about to test a new satellite search and targeting theory in the middle of a war. I’m not sure how General Walker got me into the Targeting Center. Maybe he knew the person I went to brief.
First, remove your enemy’s ability to communicate. Next, remove their power infrastructure. Finally, destroy their ability to fight back. The script was exact and uncompromising. Nobody went off-script. But Don Walker was never on script. I explained to the colonel my plan to use petroleum engineers, geologists, and meteorologists to search the Iraqi desert for hidden Scud missile batteries and other enemy forces that the regular NRO imagery missed. Predominately unclassified Landsat imagery would be used to search the desert, but NRO imagery would then be used to confirm the hiding places.
“WE DON’T DO R&D, Major.”
“We don’t have time for experiments.”
“Maybe we’ll have time for you and General Walker to play around once we’ve eliminated all our targets.”
“You can have a desk over there.”
“Just stay out of our way.”
“Say hi to the General, by the way.”
While the Air Force was planning to destroy our adversary’s critical infrastructure and “will-to-fight,” I was searching for a needle in a haystack. I was looking for Scud missiles hidden deep in the Iraqi desert. Hidden in some dried-up riverbed. Petroleum geologists had searched the Iraqi wadis for years. The weirdos from Bethesda knew these wadis better than the Bedouins. The weirdos from Bethesda could find the Scuds. But the Air Force pilots responsible for selecting the targets didn’t care about Scud missiles. Scuds were not on their battle plan. Sure, Iraq was sending Scuds into Israel to draw them into the war and destabilize the coalition of Arab countries we had built. The truth was that these missiles weren’t terribly accurate. The Scud was a weapon of terror but not an effective weapon of war.
The Iraqis would send 38 Scud missiles into Israel. Most of them aimed at Tel Aviv. The missiles weren’t particularly accurate, and with the United States sharing satellite warning information, the Israelis had time to take shelter. Two people died as a direct result of the attacks, and over 1,300 houses and over 6,100 apartments were damaged. Many more Israeli citizens died because of heart attacks and stress than of the bombings. As I said, the Scud was a weapon of terror.
“This was never going to work,” I thought as I left the vault. Even if the weirdos from Bethesda found viable targets, these rogue outposts would never have a high enough priority to have the NRO take images, let alone have that translated into a target by those stuck-up pilots. Why waste a perfectly good bomb on something that probably won’t kill you? I would need to develop a plan. One that would be far out there. A plan worthy of Vapor Man.
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” I told Bradley Lucas. Brad was the Deputy Chief of Collection for all imagery in the intelligence community. During my time at the NRO Ground Station, I worked for Brad for a brief time as a collection analyst. At lunchtime, we would go on leisurely six-mile runs, three or four days a week. Brad was in his late fifties when I knew him. He had a successful career in the Air Force and retired as a full colonel. He was now a Senior Intelligence Service civilian working for the CIA. After leaving the Ground Station, I continued to go jogging with Brad on Saturdays at Burke Lake Park in Fairfax, Virginia. When it came to intelligence collection, Bradley knew everything. More importantly, Brad knew everyone. One small problem, Brad thought General Walker was more than a bit nuts.
Brad asked, “Do you still have your CIA login?”
“Why yes, I do.”
“Do you remember how to build imagery requests?”
“Why, yes I do.”
“Do you still have Staff Authority to approve the request?”
“Why yes, I do.”
“But my targets will be so low in priority that they’ll never get taken,” I said.
“Sucks to be you,” Brad said. “You know what they say? If you want a friend in D.C., get a dog.”
I have no idea how my targets received the high priority they did or why “the system” actually took the images. Somehow, every night during the war, half a dozen or so images would show up on the secure imagery display monitors in Bethesda. I never asked Brad about this, and he never mentioned it again.
Walking into the targeting center vault to my new desk was about as demoralizing as I’ve ever felt in my life. In a sea of flight suits, there I was in my casual blue uniform, looking like a Delta airline pilot. Worse, a Delta flight attendant. This was never going to work. I would never be accepted. Even if my targets actually got on the target list, the culture and “fighter mafia” would never accept me.
I can’t remember how I came up with one of the best off-the-wall ideas of my career. Maybe I could hire a retired pilot to bring the targets in? Maybe I could hire someone who spoke their lingo, talked with their hands, so to speak. No, that wouldn’t work. A used fighter pilot, while easy for me to hire, would go over like day-old bread. A retired pilot wouldn’t work.
I honestly can’t remember how it came to be. I hired a person to sit at that desk, my desk, in the Air Campaign’s targeting center. It was genius. It was a thing of beauty. Literally. A Kodak employee I’d met years earlier was the perfect person to break down the doors to the fighter mafia. Marsha Parsons was really good-looking.
Now let’s just stop here for a minute. My writing coach explained to me that adverbs are practically useless. Except in Marsha’s case. Marsha was really, really, good-looking. She was also a nationally-ranked racket ball player. She had a small compact body and looked like an Olympic athlete. I think she played racket ball sixteen hours a day, every day. By the way, Marsha was also an honors graduate from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Marsha taught military photo interpreters how to do their job. Once I hired Marsha, I never set foot in the targeting center again. For her, charming fighter pilots was like eating butter.
Marsha completed the circle. The weirdos of Bethesda used Landsat imagery and found the bad guys, Bradley provided NRO imagery and the proof, and Marsha got them on the target list. The list for elimination.
Put your targets on the “discharge list.” I can’t remember who told me that, but it made all the difference. Apparently, fighter bombers don’t like to land with live ordinance still on board. Drop all your bombs and come home. Yet sometimes, a few extra bombs remained. This made sense to me. My Scud targets would never be the ones the Air Force would launch their missions on. But landing without live bombs, that was a no-brainer. I can’t remember how many Scud batteries we found. Found and eliminated. It’s lost on me how many Iraqi Scud battery soldiers we killed.
I feel nothing. Perhaps I should; I’ve tried. Primal elation for vanquishing a foe? Remorse for taking a life? Nope, nothing. Dozens of Iraqi soldiers died because of my targeting experiment. I feel nothing. Welcome to warfare from 10,000 miles away.
Next time I find myself in Nevada, I’ll wait outside the vans for shift change. Then, I’ll offer to buy the drone pilots a drink.