Book Review – Predator: The Remote-Control Air War Over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot’s Story
by Matt J. Martin and Charles W. Sasser
At the start of Predator: The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot’s Story, Air Force Lt. Col. Matt J. Martin writes of flying at ten thousand feet over Baghdad, pinpointing insurgents with a laser, and guiding an AC-130U Spooky gunship in to score a kill.
“Then,” writes Martin, “I remembered that Trish had asked me to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home.”
Welcome to the world of the MQ-1 Predator remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), otherwise called an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). A former Air Force navigator, Martin is a Predator RPA pilot (since 2005) who flew hundreds of missions and supervised thousands more. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan but much of the time he piloted the Predator from a ground control station (GCS) in Nevada. The GCS is similar to an airplane cockpit and provides side-by-side seating to an officer pilot and enlisted sensor operator, both of whom enjoy a superb view from high above the battlefield. “Sometimes I felt like God hurling Thunderbolts from afar,” Martin writes.
More a memoir than a history, more about Martin than about the Predator – and inexplicably lacking source notes or an index – Predator is the very personal story of one man who pilots the MQ-1, often thousands of miles away from his intended target. The book isn’t an account of the design, development and operational and combat use of the Predator. It doesn’t cover the use of the Predator by the Central Intelligence Agency. But it is a revealing look at the world of an Air Force Predator operator and those around him. Co-author Charles W. Sasser is a distinguished military veteran and author but perhaps not an aeronautical aficionado: When Martin writes that the MQ-1 is “about the size of a Cessna 155,” someone should have noticed that there is no such aircraft.
Responding to critics who question whether drone warfare complies with the law of war, Martin points out that the Predator is in some ways a mix of the old and the new:
The Air Force “treated RPA technology as an extension of airpower,” Martin wrote. “We followed the same rules of engagement and used the same procedures as all other aircraft, manned or unmanned, that employed weapons in support of the fight on the ground. To us, the Predator is a longer-duration, lightly armed (and much less survivable) version of an F-16 – with the benefits of persistence, global distribution of video and data, the ability to leverage the entire intelligence apparatus through ground communications links, and the ability to think clearly at zero knots and one G.” The Predator, Martin writes, is “an extension of the general military and as such accountable to the laws of armed conflict within a military chain of command subservient to civilian oversight.” Martin is right on all points but most critics aren’t questioning him and his fellow military officers: They’re asking about the CIA’s use of the Predator for targeted killings in Pakistan.
Usefully, Martin dispels any notion that the Predator functions more or less perfectly than any other war machine. At one juncture, he is closing in on a target, an insurgents’ armed pick-up truck, when his trans-global connection is shut down by “a power outage in the satellite uplink in Europe.” By itself, as it’s supposed to, the uncontrolled Predator breaks off the attack and flies around in circles in a “lost link profile.” When the connection is restored, the target is gone.
Martin expresses some concern about collateral damage – an old man walks into a group of insurgents after Martin fires a Hellfire missile and dies with them – but believes Air Force Predator crews are saving lives in the long run. He discusses post traumatic stress disorder experienced by colleagues who become rattled by the long-distance, high-altitude killing unique to RPA warfare.
Too little is written, here, about the enlisted sensor operator who makes up half the Predator crew but receives far less compensation. Too much is written about Afghan history, al Qaeda, jihad and 9-11 in segments of prose that feel padded and are perhaps outside the expertise of the author. Martin tells us more about the Hellfire missile (in useful detail) than about the Predator itself.
Richard Whittle, author of The Dream Machine, about the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, is currently writing a book about the Predator. Martin’s personal account is of great value as a “day in the life” of a Predator pilot. My bet is that it will make a welcome companion to what may be a more comprehensive history when Whittle’s book emerges.