5 drones that have transformed American aerial capabilities since World War I

Battlefield tactics and technologies evolve with each new war. Tools that work well in one conflict may prove useless in the next. Others endure, become staples in an army’s arsenal, and improve over time. For the US military, one such tool is the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, iterations of which have accompanied US troops in combat for far longer than many of us realize. From the radio-controlled biplanes developed during World War I, to the CIA’s insect drones used to gather intelligence behind the Iron Curtain, to the two-in-one reconnaissance and missile platforms that have figured prominently in In the war on terrorism, UAVs have played a vital role in American combat and spy missions since the dawn of modern warfare. The five drones featured below tell this fascinating and often underestimated story.

The Kettering Bug

The Kettering Bug inspired future generations of American-made drones. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of the US Air Force.

The Kettering Aerial Torpedo was the brainchild of inventor Charles F. Kettering. Towards the end of the First World War, Kettering built a so-called flying bomb at the request of the US Army who wanted an unmanned aircraft. Also known as the Kettering Bug, this primitive drone looked like a normal biplane except with a propeller, fixed wings, and four wheels to provide stability on the ground.

The Kettering Bug was launched from a four-wheeled cart along a portable track. Its internal system had pre-set electrical commands that helped the drone steer towards the target. “After a predetermined time, a command closed an electrical circuit, which shut down the engine,” the National Museum of the US Air Force says on its website. “The wings were released, causing the Bug to plummet to earth – where its 180 pounds of explosive detonated on impact.” Although the Kettering Bug never saw combat – less than 50 models were made before the 1918 armistice – it inspired the American drones that were later developed during World War II.

D-21 supersonic drone

UAV skunkworks
The M-21, a variant of the A-12, carrying the D-21 in flight. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

During the Cold War, the legendary Skunkworks Division, responsible for developing some of Lockheed Martin’s most innovative aircraft, developed the D-21 (Daughter) supersonic drone. These unmanned drones were designed to hitch a ride on a variant of the manned A-12 spy planes, similar to how space shuttles hitch a ride on 747 jetliners. According Lockheed Martin website, the D-21 could fly faster than a bullet, often exceeding speeds of Mach 3.3 and at altitudes between 87,000 feet and 95,000 feet. The D-21 had a range of 3,000 nautical miles, and rather than being remotely piloted, the drone could be pre-programmed with a specific flight path when launched from the spy plane. When the drone completed its reconnaissance mission over hostile territory, it returned to friendly airspace and dropped its film canisters, which were then picked up by a passing C-130. The drone had a self-destruct function which was activated after discharging the cartridges. Modifications were made between 1966 and 1971, but the D-21 was retired soon after.

CIA insectothopter

In the 1970s, the CIA tried to solve a long-standing problem with a tiny insect-inspired gadget called an insectothopter. The insectothopter was a miniature UAV designed to look like a dragonfly. During World War I, the US Army attached cameras to pigeons to gather photographic surveillance of hostile positions. But the poor quality of the images made it difficult to locate the enemy against the backdrop of the photographed terrain. Decades later, the CIA began to develop a modern solution to this problem so that its agents could use drones to covertly capture precise images that could be easily deciphered and turned into actionable intelligence.

Keith Melton, founding board member of the International Spy Museum, explained in the museum’s 2020 video presentation how the CIA looked to nature for inspiration in its miniature aerial surveillance technology. The CIA’s Office of Research and Development then studied the best flight characteristics of insects, including the dragonfly. Dragonflies had a stable 3-inch wingspan, could fly in various weather conditions, and had the strength to be equipped with a set of sensors. The prototype weighed only one gram and could cover a few hundred meters in 60 seconds of flight. Early experiments were promising, but in the end the CIA discovered that the insectothopter became unstable in flight when traversing crosswinds; thus, the micro-UAV never performed an operational mission. It has, however, inspired generations of micro-drones, which have been deployed in abundance in the war on terrorism.

Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel

RQ-170 UAV
The RQ-170 captured by Iran in 2011. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

Lockheed Martin’s Skunkworks division was eventually tasked with another classified project to meet the US military’s changing demands for UAV capabilities. So he developed the Sentinel RQ-170, which in appearance resembles a B-2 bomber but much smaller. With only a 14-meter wingspan, the RQ-170 Sentinel can fly up to 50,000 feet and provides real-time intelligence to operators at the 432nd Air Combat Command Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, as well as the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at Tonopah Test Range, Nevada.

The RQ-170’s first publicly acknowledged mission was launched from Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan in 2007. Shortly after, the UAV earned the famous nickname “The Beast of Kandahar.” The RQ-170 also flew over North Korea and was reportedly used in 2011 Bin Laden Raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The real-time feed allowed President Barack Obama and his staff to watch the assault as it unfolded. In December of the same year, the Iranian the military successfully hijacked an RQ-170 while in flight, then reverse-engineered it and developed a version of the aircraft for its own UAV fleet. Ouch!

Switchblade Drones

Switchblade drones are the primary tactical missile systems in ongoing conflicts such as the Global War on Terror and the War in Ukraine. Photo courtesy of AeroVironment.

Switchblade Tactical Systems are a two-in-one package. Developed in the 2000s by AeroVironment and entering service in 2011, these Switchblade devices are the first deadly miniature aerial missile system in the US military’s arsenal. A single operator can set up a self-contained Tube Launcher – a smaller, more compact version of a Mortar Tube – in less than 10 minutes and launch either of two Switchblade models into a hostile area. Once at an altitude of between 500 and 650 feet above the ground, the drone has the endurance to stay on station for between 15 minutes and 40 minutes, or more, depending on the model, and uses ISR capabilities to provide operators real-time monitoring. . If the ground operator decides to hit a target – a vehicle, for example, or an object or a person through a window — the Switchblade can perform precision strikes with minimal collateral damage.

There is currently two models of these drones: Switchblade 300 and Switchblade 600. Switchblade 300, the smallest model, weighs only 5.5 pounds, can fit in a backpack and is designed for anti-personnel use, while the Switchblade 600 is much larger , weighing about 50 pounds, and carries a warhead that can destroy tanks. In 2022, the United States provided around 100 Switchblade drones to Ukraine, where the Switchblade 600 in particular have since been known as “kamikaze drones”.

Read more : Special operators destroy Switchblade drones bound for Ukraine

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