Drones have been developed by the CIA for nearly 50 years, beginning in 1959 when the CIA began gathering information about the first nuclear facility being built by the Chinese, at Lop Nur. CIA pilots flying reconnaissance missions across China were getting shot down (Lop Nur is located 2,000 miles inside mainland China, almost to Mongolia) and drones could perform missions too dull, dirty, or dangerous for piloted aircraft. Dull included long flights where pilots could easily face fatigue; dirty meant situations where weapons of mass destruction might be involved; dangerous meant low-flying missions over denied territory where shoot-downs were almost certain.
Despite the drone’s long and significant role in the history of aerial espionage, the world at large would only come to learn about drones in 2002. On November 3, 2002, the CIA launched a Hellfire air-to-surface missile from a Predator drone flying over a road in the desert in Yemen. In doing so it reduced six al-Qaeda operatives and their car to a smoking pile of ash and brought drones out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
The debate was on. The “legality” of drone missions suddenly became a major hot-button issue, with one side saying drone strikes were a violation of international law and the other side saying that preemptive strikes against terrorists were necessary to prevent future mass-casualty attacks. President Obama’s use of drones underscores the fact that while the two sides will continue to debate, the U.S. will continue to take out terrorists with drones. Expect more to come. There are more than 5,300 drones flying over Afghanistan and Iraq today.