1995: The year the future began
As I discuss in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, it was the year the Internet and World Wide Web entered mainstream consciousness. It was the year of the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.
And it was the year of deployment of a new platform of warfare that eventually would deal death from afar, and foment enduring controversy: Over Bosnia in the summer of 1995, the U.S. military sent aloft unmanned, remotely piloted RQ-1 Predator drones.
The Predators, developed by the military contractor General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, were propellor-driven, unarmed, but video-equipped. They were used principally for surveillance and intelligence-gathering, tracking movements of Bosnia Serb military which, early in the Bosnian War, had seized large swaths of territory and laid siege to the capital, Sarajevo.
Steve Coll, in his book Ghost Wars, said the drones “secretly deployed to Bosnia in 1995 were designed to loiter over targets for twenty-four hours and could fly as far as five hundred miles from their home base at an altitude of us to twenty-five thousand feet.”
They were slow, Coll wrote, operating at an average speed of about 70 miles per hour. And they “were so light that they sometimes drifted backward in the teeth of headwinds.”
The Predators were operated from a ground base in Albania and their missions over Bosnia became frequent enough in July and August 1995 that “the Serbs began to realize that when they heard something like a loud mosquito buzzing overhead they were being watched,” Richard Whittle noted in his well-researched book, Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution. “Soon they began gunning for Predator.”
Twenty years ago yesterday, on August 11, 1995, “Serb troops finally bagged one,” Whittle wrote.
The ill-fated Predator was flying low over a military convoy went it was shot down. Later, Serb television broadcast images of Serb troops standing on the fallen drone’s wing, Whittle wrote.
Three days later, another Predator was lost over Bosnia. This time, according to Whittle’s book, the aircraft’s engine quit and its operator-pilot sent the device diving into a mountain, “trying to smash it into bits too small to matter if the Serbs found them.”
The losses represented half of the Predator force deployed over Bosnia in 1995.
In reporting about the downed Predators, the Washington Post said on August 15, 1995, that “pilotless aircraft such as the Predator play a key role in Defense Department plans for dominating future wars. Those plans envision far superior capabilities than now exist for gathering real-time information about battlefield action. Such information would be relayed to weapons systems that could be fired from far away, by operators who would never need to view their targets directly.”
That was just about how Predators were developed: By 2002, they had been equipped with Hellfire missiles, fired by operators guiding the drones from great distances.
Armed versions of the Predator have been in action in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Its successor model is the larger MQ-9 Reaper drone.
In 1995, the Predators’ deployment over Bosnia was “a testing ground” for features that are still in use on drones, including live video feeds “and the ability to fly at great altitude for long stretches of time,” Arthur Holland noted in 2013 in an essay for the Center of the Study of the Drone at Bard College.
“In short,” Holland added, “when we look at the current drone operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and east Africa, we are looking at a model of warfare which was first tested in Bosnia.”
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