Air Force UAVs: The Secret History

  • Ehrhard T
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In 1956, Air Force Maj. Gen. David Baker ad- dressed a meeting of industrial leaders by stating, “We can readily see that except for certain types of mis- sions, the manned combat aircraft will become tech- nically obsolete in the future.”1 He was referring not to UAVs, but to the possible replacement of manned penetrating bombers by intercontinental ballistic mis- siles and pilotless cruise missiles. The nuclear delivery mission was the keystone of Air Force organizational identity and budget share, however, so his statement speaks to the technological optimism of Air Force lead- ers concerning unproven, immature, and truly innova- tive aerospace technologies. His comments do not wholly concern missile developments, however, for at the same time the Air Force was also investing in fairly sophisticated, jet-powered target drones. Camera-carrying deriva- tives of those jet drones, operated by Air Force pilots, would soon evolve into the first significant combat UAV in history.2 This paper explores Air Force UAV systems us- ing a comparative analytical framework. Systems are presented chronologically and the analysis focuses on external and internal variables contributing to weapon system innovation. As with the other services, inde- pendent externalities such as aviation technology, the military threat, and politics provide the context for Air Force UAV decision-making.

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  • Thomas P Ehrhard

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