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'Throughline' explores the past, present and future of drone warfare

NOEL KING, HOST:

The U.S. military launched the last drone strike of the U.S.-Afghan war in late August. It was a tragic mistake. That strike killed 10 Afghan civilians. Seven of them were kids. Civilian casualties from drone strikes have been a problem for years. Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei are the hosts of NPR's history podcast, Throughline. They looked back at the origin of drones and when they became a weapon of war.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: The first drone prototype was created in 1917. It was called the Kettering Bug. It was a fully automated bomb the size of a single-engine plane designed to swoop over and drop down on an enemy target, all completely without a pilot. The only problem was...

JAMES ROGERS: In reality, it was worse than useless.

ABDELFATAH: This is James Rogers. He's a war historian who's co-writing a book called "Drone Warfare: Concepts And Controversies."

ROGERS: It would flail around in the sky, and it would even sometimes turn back on its own people who were testing it. So it was really unpredictable. But that almost doesn't matter in what we're talking about.

ABDELFATAH: Because what we're really talking about is the fact that the U.S. public quickly grew tired of seeing their young men dying in the trenches of World War I. The Kettering Bug was one of the U.S.'s first attempts at reducing casualties by using machines instead of people in war.

ROGERS: What matters is the intention behind it. And the intention there was to separate American troops from having to be sacrificed in war and to be put at risk by deploying robots.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: And this is why, despite the Kettering Bug's failure, the U.S. military continued to develop tools for precision war. But it would take another 50 years for the drone to see heavy action.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Some of the most remarkable contributions to aerial reconnaissance during the Vietnam War came from an unusual assortment of remotely piloted vehicles.

ARABLOUEI: And those remotely piloted vehicles, those drones flying high above the thick rainforest canopies of Vietnam, became known as...

ROGERS: The Lightning Bug.

ARABLOUEI: The Lightning Bug was a small, unmanned aircraft deployed from bigger planes.

ROGERS: They were used to take pictures over enemy territory. They weren't particularly reliable. They would crash an awful lot, and you would just - you'd lose drones.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: While more than 200 drones were ultimately shot down, their use prevented the loss of at least that many reconnaissance groups and undoubtedly many more.

ARABLOUEI: So when the U.S. went into another war in 1991, military leaders looked at drones with advanced computer software to keep the American death toll as low as possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE H W BUSH: Five months ago, Saddam Hussein started this cruel war against Kuwait. Tonight, the battle has been joined.

ROGERS: And it's at this point the drone becomes an incredibly useful surveillance and target acquisition tool. So it is able to then fly back and to tell U.S. targeters where Saddam's troops are.

ABDELFATAH: And the U.S. dropped a lot of bombs - over 88,000 tons on Iraqi military and civilian infrastructure, killing thousands of people.

ROGERS: It's the first time in the history of warfare that you had a human try and surrender to a robot.

ARABLOUEI: The war lasted only about a month, and relatively few American lives were lost. And then...

ROGERS: You start to see this coupling of the lethal targeting and the utility of the drone itself. And this continues.

ARABLOUEI: Now drones became armed with missiles. The angel in the sky watching out for soldiers had become the angel of death.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The Air Force's Predator system, its unmanned reconnaissance and strike plane, hunts enemies covertly from the sky, attacks on commands received by satellite...

ABDELFATAH: It was the culmination of generations of research and development, and it suddenly gave the U.S. high command a godlike ability to stalk enemies and kill them at a moment's notice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: Good afternoon. On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaida terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

ABDELFATAH: The first U.S. Predator drone strike in combat happened less than a month after 9/11. The target - Taliban leader Mullah Omar. But the drone's missile missed its mark, and Omar survived. Even so, after that first failed strike, the Predator drone would be used over and over by the CIA and U.S. military.

ROGERS: We can talk to about 50-plus drone strikes during the Bush administration.

ABDELFATAH: Drone communications got more reliable. With every year, their impact on the war increased.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: We've lost thousands of American lives, spent nearly a trillion dollars, alienated allies, neglected emerging threats - all in the cause of fighting a war for well over five years in a country that had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

ARABLOUEI: When President Obama campaigned for office in 2008, the U.S. was embroiled in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And in order to try to keep his promise to reduce the risk to American military lives, he turned to the drone.

ROGERS: Who becomes known as the drone president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The aftermath of a drone strike in Pakistan's South Waziristan region in 2008. Amongst the victims were numerous civilians.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray. And for a short period of time, the mental tension and fear eases.

ABDELFATAH: Some estimate that during the Obama administration, there were almost 1,900 drone strikes. The total number of civilian casualties during the Obama drone wars has never been definitively recorded.

President Trump also utilized the drone, notably killing an Iranian military commander, General Qasem Soleimani, on Iraqi soil. This is what James Rogers calls...

ROGERS: War by remote control. And that remoteness isn't just in the technology, but it's also in our minds as well because no one's going to write a letter to the family of a drone if it gets shot down. It is a robot in the sky. That is the point. It has zero risk of taking a drone out to American military lives. Now, of course, it has lots of risk to civilians within that theater of conflict. But it means that you have that public disconnect and that democratic disconnect to the conflict of which you're involved in and what you're waging.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: That was James Rogers talking to Throughline hosts Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah. You can find the entire episode wherever you listen to podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.