Monday, September 15, 2014

On the Reading List

...Rick Whittle's much-anticipated book on the Predator drone and how it evolved from technology opposed by much of the defense establishment, and into a key component of the war on terror.  Colin Clark of Breaking Defense got an advance copy and offers high praise, indeed:

"...Whittle’s superb book on the creation and uses of the Predator drone needs to be read by the Pentagon’s head of acquisition, Frank Kendall, and everyone else who decides what weapons America buys, including the professional staff on Capitol Hill who tell their congressional bosses what’s real and why.

Whittle, who seems to be making a habit out of producing excellent books on the acquisition of major weapon systems, offers a vibrant tale of the painful, slow and uncertain development of this new class of weapon.

In his words, Predator’s designer “had offered an ingenious new technology that was revolutionary, but politics and personality had trumped performance…” That was his summary of the plane’s fate when it was first sold to another company, but it could stand as the program’s epitaph until the urgent hunt for Osama bin Laden shattered the political, cultural and policy restraints that bound it.

According to Mr. Clark, the book does a masterful job in describing the various elements that made Predator a resounding success, beginning with Abraham Karem, a brilliant Israeli weapons designer who bet everything on his ability to develop drones for the U.S. military.  Readers are also introduced to Neal and Linden Blue, two brothers who convinced General Atomics to take a chance on Karem's concepts, and a pair of truly unsung heroes: Ira Kuhn, a DARPA consultant who convinced his superiors to provide $350,000 in seed money for the program and an Air Force engineer--identified only as "Werner"--who rigged the control and communications links that allow Predator to be controlled from anywhere on the globe, and beam its pictures to intel centers thousands of miles away.

Predator also represents a technology that emerged in the right place at the right time.  The war in Bosnia sparked interest from the Clinton Administration and the program really took off after 9-11, when the Pentagon needed platforms that could remain aloft for long periods of time and cover vast swaths of remote territory.

Based on brief excerpts viewed at Amazon, it looks like Whittle captures the element of Predator that many ignore: its ability to provide real-time, actionable intelligence, through the work of analysts at Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) sites around the world.  Without their efforts, Predator and other UAV platforms would be doing little more than burning aviation gas, and giving seat time to drone pilots and sensor operators.

And strangely enough, if story of Predator sounds vaguely familiar, it should.  The UAV system represents another technology that succeeded, despite the Pentagon's best efforts to kill it.  Predator came on the heels of an expensive, multi-year effort to field a drone system for the Army that came to naught and wasted a billion dollars.  With memories of that failure still fresh, the Predator concept faced an uphill battle from the start, with additional opposition from the pilot mafia in the Air Force and Navy.

We've been down this road before.  During World War II, with a desperate need for long-range fighters to escort our bombers over Europe, the Army Air Corps was preparing to fund something called the P-75 Eagle, a GM-built contraption that was (essentially) an amalgam of other aircraft, with wing and tail sections borrowed from such airframes as diverse as the P-40 Warhawk and the SBD dive bomber.  The P-75 had severe teething problems which prompted Air Corps planners to look at other options, notably the P-51 Mustang.  With its original Allison engine, the Mustang was average, at best.  But equipped with a Rolls Royce Merlin powerplant, the P-51 became a world-beater, and the fighter that helped win the air war in Europe.

Similarly, the Navy almost took a pass on the famous Higgins boat, used for amphibious landings around the globe.  Senior officers favored a Navy design (that was fraught with problems) over a competing craft from shipbuilder Andrew Higgins.  The New Orleans-based entrepreneur literally threw down the gauntlet to the Navy, challenging the service to a test in Norfolk harbor in 1942.  Attempting to deliver a 30-ton tank to the beach, the Navy landing craft nearly sank; Higgins's design performed flawlessly.

Sometimes, the defense technology solution really is right before our eyes--if we're bold enough to think outside the box.           




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