With over two decades of experience, Mark Cooter and Alec Bierbauer have been called the “Wright Brothers” of the U.S. drone warfare program. They were the ones – in January 2000 – who were tasked with finding terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. They had nine months to carry out their mission.
This week’s episode of Borne the Battle explores the history of drone warfare, which dates back to the 1990s, when drones were used as relatively simple, short-range surveillance tools.
Here, Cooter and Bierbauer discuss how their team located bin Laden a full year before the events of 9/11 (and why they couldn’t take action against him), how weapons were first added to drones, and the ways in which drone technology has evolved over the last 20 years. They also talk about the psychological stress endured by today’s drone operators and caution against minimizing the combat trauma faced by pilots and support crews.
“It could very easily be perceived as a video game,” said Bierbauer in the podcast, “and it’s not.”
An MQ-1 Predator, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, piloted by Lt. Col. Scott Miller on a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force Photo / Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt)
U.S. rules of engagement hold that military forces could only attack an enemy target if they had “eyes on” – that is, if the target was under direct observation. Political considerations also meant that American troops could not be stationed in a friendly “host” country. Further complicating matters, manned spy planes could not be deployed unless they were also supported by search and rescue personnel, in case the aircraft was shot down. Using unmanned drones provided a solution to all of these problems: They didn’t require the presence of troops on the ground and could monitor targets from a distance without any risk to a pilot or crew.
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