An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan in 2010. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security for The Washington Post.

Twenty years ago this summer, a revolution in aviation began inauspiciously on a runway in El Mirage, Calif. An insect-shaped aircraft, which may or may not have been named after an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, performed miserably on its maiden flight — staying aloft for barely 14 seconds, just two seconds longer than Orville Wright managed at Kitty Hawk in 1903. The results, however, were good enough for the Pentagon. The military had signed a contract to buy 10 of the experimental reconnaissance aircraft and wanted to rush them to the Balkans. Known as the Predator, it stood out for one thing it didn’t have or need: a pilot on board.

The Predator drone was ugly, slow and unreliable. Despite those drawbacks, the aircraft quickly exceeded expectations; within a decade, it had transformed the very nature of warfare and spawned a lucrative new defense industry. Today, the Pentagon has 10,000 drones of varying types, from the size of a child’s toy to that of a Boeing 757. Compared with newer models, the Predator has become technologically outdated. The Air Force plans to phase it out by 2018. But it remains an iconic warplane, one that has enabled the U.S. government to hunt down al-Qaeda leaders and other enemies of the state by remote control. Critics see it more darkly, as a weapon that the United States has wielded to assassinate people without accountability.

The unlikely circumstances that led to the birth of the Predator are narrated in fresh and authoritative detail by Richard Whittle, a longtime military journalist and former defense correspondent for the Dallas Morning News. Whittle spent five years cultivating access to insiders from the Defense Department and General Atomics, the Predator’s publicity-averse manufacturer. His reporting in “Predator” is methodical and credible, no small feat given the lid of silence that the Air Force, the CIA, the Obama administration and General Atomics have welded onto their drone operations, even the trivial parts.

I’ve covered secretive military drone programs for years, and I’ve always wondered how the Predator was tagged with such a fearsome name. Other early-model drones sounded non-threatening, almost comical: the Gnat, the Albatross and the Lightning Bug. When the Predator was invented, it was envisioned solely as a harmless spy plane — a new way to conduct surveillance with high-tech cameras. The idea of turning it into a killer drone by arming it with Hellfire missiles didn’t emerge until several years later. So why the menacing name?

“Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution” by Richard Whittle. (Henry Holt)

According to Whittle, one General Atomics executive wanted to call a prototype the Birdie, because “birdies go cheep, cheep, cheep” and affordability was its selling point (price back then: $1.5 million apiece — the equivalent of a rounding error in the Pentagon budget). Another General Atomics official, retired Navy Adm. Thomas Cassidy, nixed Birdie in favor of Predator. In an interview with Whittle, Cassidy was cagey about why. But he insisted it was only a coincidence that he dreamed up the name at the same time that Hollywood released a Schwarzenegger flick titled “Predator,” featuring a bloodthirsty extraterrestrial monster. Regardless, the name stuck.

Early versions of the drone looked as if they had been cobbled together in somebody’s garage — which, according to Whittle, was pretty much the case. The aircraft was powered by a four-cylinder engine that had the same horsepower as an old VW Beetle and flew only slightly faster. “As aircraft go, the new Predator’s name was the sexiest thing about it,” he writes.

In a harbinger of problems to come, the drone had trouble staying in the air. Its first combat deployment came in July 1995, when the Air Force packed three Predators into crates and shipped them to an old communist military base in Albania to spy on Serb forces in the Balkans. Within a month, the Serbs had shot down one Predator, and a second had crashed into a mountain after its engine conked out. The drone’s performance record gradually improved, but from a safety and reliability standpoint, it was a flawed aircraft. According to a recent Washington Post investigation, nearly half of all Predators bought by the Air Force since then have been involved in major aviation accidents.

Whittle’s best material appears in the final chapters, when he delivers action-packed details about how the CIA and the Pentagon used armed Predators to hunt for al-Qaeda leaders immediately after 9/11. Based on interviews with numerous par­ticipants, he describes how the CIA operated the Predators from a remote-control ground station disguised as a double-wide construction trailer outside headquarters in Langley. A joint CIA-Air Force team thought it had Taliban boss Mohammad Omar in its sights in Kandahar, Afghanistan, but interference from a muddled chain of command screwed up the mission. Redemption came a few weeks later when the Predator team helped track down al-Qaeda’s military chief, Muhammad Atef, in Kabul and he was apparently killed in a missile attack.

Much of the book, however, dwells on bureaucratic rivalries and the sausage-making of defense acquisition. While such issues may have preoccupied the military officers, spies and contractors who gave us the Predator, Whittle has less to say about some more-profound questions that drones pose. Is it ethical to fight a war by remote control, with uniformed Air Force pilots blowing up targets on the other side of the world from their safe, air-conditioned work stations? And what happens when the Pentagon inevitably invents a flying robot that can decide on its own, without a human at the controls, to launch a Hellfire missile?

Craig Whitlock is covers the Pentagon and national security for The Washington Post.

PREDATOR

The Secret Origins
of the Drone Revolution

By Richard Whittle

Henry Holt. 353 pp. $30